Google's security excuse for dumping Windows is bogus, say analysts

Likely related to tension between the two companies, experts speculate

If a report is accurate and Google is urging its workers to dump Windows because of security concerns, the company's rationale is bogus and disingenuous, analysts said today.

The experts were reacting to a story published Monday on the Financial Times' Web site that cited several unnamed Google employees who said the company is phasing out the use of MIcrosoft's Windows operating system because of security concerns.

Instead of Windows, Google is reportedly offering workers the choice between Macs running Apple's Mac OS X and PCs running Linux .

Several analysts scoffed at the security excuse.

"There must be other motives besides security for such a move," said John Pescatore, an analyst at Gartner who specializes in security issues. "As an academic exercise, yes, the 'security-by-obscurity' model works," he said, referring to the concept that users are safer running Mac OS X and Linux because they have much smaller market shares than Windows, and so offer hackers a less attractive target.

That's why most malware is written for Windows machines, Pescatore added.

"But for Google -- or for that matter a company like Oracle or Cisco -- it doesn't, because [attackers] target them specifically," he continued. "If [hackers] know that Google uses Macs, then they'll just target the company with Mac malware. And Mac malware exists."

Windows and its supporting ecosystem do have more zero-day vulnerabilities -- flaws that are exploited before a patch is available from the vendor -- Pescatore acknowledged. "But if you look at the total cost of ownership of, say, Macs in the enterprise, you're not going to find yourself spending any less on security than if you were running Windows."

Google's corporate network was hacked late last year when attackers exploited an unpatched vulnerability in Microsoft's Internet Explorer 6 , security researchers said in January.

"The idea that security is behind this is a little bogus," added Michael Gartenberg, an analyst with the Altimeter Group. "Windows seems pretty good for Fortune 500 companies."

Like Pescatore, Gartenberg sees Google's move, if true, driven by other factors than security. "It's an interesting excuse, but to me, it underscores the tension between Google and Microsoft," Gartenberg said.

The two companies are locked in simultaneous battles over everything from search, where Google is the dominant player, to business productivity software, where Microsoft rules.

Last month, Google and Microsoft engaged in a public spat over Microsoft's Office suite , with Google claiming that its online Google Docs was a less expensive alternative for companies considering upgrading to the about-to-be-released-to-retail Office 2010; Microsoft countered that Docs can't cut it.

"Google has its own browser, its own [application] software and its own OS," said Gartenberg, talking about Chrome OS, the unreleased operating system Google announced 11 months ago but won't release until later this year. "So I can't say this [talk of ditching Windows] comes as a total shock. But it seems a little disingenuous."

If Google does drop Windows internally, the company has options, including Mac OS X, Linux and if it's at the point where it runs reliably, Chrome OS. But some of those choices may be just as vulnerable as Windows.

"Chrome OS is too early in its development for them to use [on production PCs]," said Gartenberg. "So there's Linux or Mac OS. But given the tension between Google and Apple, how long can Mac last there?"

Google and Apple have rubbed each other the wrong way over mobile devices, especially smartphones, where Google's Android operating system is challenging Apple's iPhone .

"I'm willing to bet that it's not Apple that ends up on Google's desktops," echoed Ezra Gottheil, an analyst who follows both companies for Technology Business Research.

Gottheil saw a different spin on the report that Google is edging away from Windows. "I think it all has to do with Docs rather than the operating system," he said. "The big thing you lose when you lose Windows [in an enterprise] is Excel." In his scenario, Google is less interested in weaning workers from Windows than it is in getting everyone on Docs, which includes an online spreadsheet.

"This reminds me of when Scott McNealy ran Sun [Microsystems]," said Pescatore. "He said that he wouldn't let employees use Office because it had security problems. But Sun was pushing OpenOffice."

In 1996, McNealy, then the CEO of Sun, said he had banned PowerPoint , Office's presentation manager, from the company. "I just edicted [sic] it," McNealy said then. "I just said 'out.'"

Microsoft declined to comment on the report, while Google issued a short, general statement. "We're always working to improve the efficiency of our business, but we don't comment on specific operational matters," a Google spokesman said.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld . Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His e-mail address is .

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