Monday, July 13, 2009

On the Google-Microsoft Conflict

A recent New York Times editorial suggests the Google/Microsoft conflict is a sort of farce, with each company really uninterested in destroying the other because it would be bad for their own business. This is hogwash. Take a look at the author's reasoning:
The vast majority of Google searches are, of course, done on PCs running Microsoft Windows and Internet Explorer. It is not in Google’s real interest to displace these products, which have facilitated so much of its success.
Robert X. Cringely, July 13, 2009
This is classic Cringely: the wrong conclusion from wrong facts. Microsoft products haven't facilitated Google's success. Were the Internet a Microsoft product, everyone would be forced to participate in it using current versions of Microsoft servers and Microsoft clients. Instead, the genius of the Internet, and the reason Google thrives on it, derives from the free nature of Berkley-licensed TCP-IP network code, open standards, and the fact that Google can maintain all its internally-developed software and modifications free from snooping competitors -- because it all resides on Google's servers.

Google has noticed that a decent web-enabled handheld can have a much greater density of search use (and therefore exposure to Google's advertisements) than some of the junk that preceded it. Google naturally wants more highly-capable web devices in broad use -- and needs them to be as cheap as possible so as to maximize the user count -- because it is the breadth of the public that can use Google's revenue-generating services that drives Google's money-making. If Microsoft never sold another OS license, it would not be a day too soon for Google, whose business depends in no way on technology or licenses emanating from Redmond. Microsoft browsers -- ignoring standards, pressuring the world to use Microsoft development tools and devlopment APIs and deployment servers -- hold little particular benefit for Google, which would as soon see the world adopt Mozilla -- or Chrome.

Microsoft would like take Google's ad revenues, and has tried to take them by purchasing advertising competitors. The fact that Microsoft has failed isn't for lack of trying, it's just apparently not Microsoft's bag, as it were.

Let's face it: the Google/Microsoft battle isn't being fought with kid gloves as Cringely suggests. It's being fought as seriously as its participants know how, to choke the air out of opponents before they can return a killing blow. So Google works to offer a free OS for the masses, to eviscerate Microsoft. Microsoft, for its own part, keeps trying to build advertising infrastructure, drive the public to its own content, and otherwise deprive Google of any ad revenue Microsoft can glean from the Net. Google, though it has not had great success pushing server-based applications, might yet offer a combined Google Office and OS for a segment of the public uninterested in spending hundreds of dollars on Microsoft licenses and eager to buy low-end hardware to surf the web, write papers for school, and so on.

Whether either company will strike on a scheme to smother the other has yet to be seen. However, it's quite clear to those paying attention that the contest is no game.

Where Cringely misses the mark most, though, is in misunderstanding Google's core competency. Cringely believes Google is about searches and per-click revenue from advertisements. Searches and per-click revenue from advertisements Google places on various web pages around the world are both evidence of Google's real mission: to organize data for useful access. Have a look at Google's mission statement. Think about what Google offers. Maps? Directions? Links to phone numbers directly from mobile search pages so you can reach restaurants you hunt for? Google wants to be your interface for all the data you need in your life. Web search is just a facet of this in motion. Web browsers are just an interface feature of Google's information access service. Free operating systems and document creation tools will be more of the same, whether they supplant Microsoft in large market segments or only in tiny niches.

Understanding Google's mission helps one to understand its battle in a different light. Did you ever send someone a document made with a Microsoft product, only to find it couldn't be opened because someone had the wrong product version, or a Microsoft-unsupported operating system? Ever try to get onto a network to get information, only to be stymied by some tech flunkie explaining a Microsoft-only network policy?

Now ask yourself: what purpose has Microsoft got in this world other than to act as a toll collecter standing between you and the data you want to handle and transmit? If the answer is for you as I see it for others, Google can't help but to thwart Microsoft at every turn, even if by accident. (Microsoft's answer to music was DRM requiring fees to be paid to Microsoft regardless who made or sold or played the music; Microsoft's answer to servers was to create development platforms that required Microsoft-licensed development tools to make work; Microsoft's answer to document creation was an undocumented file format that hardly anything can read properly except an expensive Microsoft product; Microsoft's answer to legally mandating that government offices publish materials in a well-documented license-free file format to ensure permanent free access to government publications was to lobby for a patent-encumbered file format Microsoft can tax while working against free standards. Think of a time Microsoft helped anyone access their data.)

The battle is well joined. To the victor will, presumably, go the spoils.

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