For the last few months I've been putting articles into Desktop Pipeline that ask, in effect, "Is Google the next Microsoft?" It began in May with Google Searching For A Business Market and it's continued through stories about business blogging (Google was very early into the blog craze with its purchase of blogger.com), its free e-mail service, Gmail, half a dozen articles about Google maps, to last week's release of beta code for a new version of Desktop Search and a new instant messaging/IP phone application.
With many of these moves, like its blogging add-in for Microsoft Word, Google seems to be taking direct aim at the House that Gates Built. But is Google really trying to become the new Microsoft? I don't think so. Things change, after all. Not even Microsoft is the new Microsoft.
Business models change, too. Microsoft sells software and buys advertising. Google gives away software and sells advertising. And Google has done so well that it's attracted Microsoft's attention. From the earliest days of MSN to its $500 million flirtation with adware spewmeister Claria in June Microsoft has been trying on the advertising business model.
The difference is the maturity of the market. Google isn't the only competition. In fact, Yahoo! offers a broader range of Web-based applications and services, including such things as a shared calendar and of course Yahoo! Groups, which has quietly become a major communications medium for clubs and organizations and small businesses that want to build communities of their members and customers.
Google's got a style that Yahoo! can't match, the same aura of technological hipness that made Microsoft stand out two decades ago. But familiarity breeds contempt: Microsoft doesn't look nearly as hip as it did in the era of DOS 3.
Desktop operating systems and productivity applications, the sources of Microsoft's torrential cashflow, are old news like the dinosaurs. Open-source software owns the future of both these markets. So Microsoft has to move into Google's turf. My guess: Redmond will fight for the market, using all the tricks it knows so well, for as long as it has to, and if necessary it will spend some billions of that pile of cash it's sitting on.
It will be fun for us computer users, because the competition will mean lots of cool toyware to play with. It will be fun for the business analysts as well, as they try to figure out what Microsoft will buy as it transitions its business. How do you feel about Microsoft-buys-Yahoo!? Microsoft-buys-Amazon? Microsoft-buys-eBay?
The more serious questions revolve around whether Google can penetrate the corporate marketplace, where the real money in computing is, with ad-supported applications. What sort of applications will work in that model? Do I see myself using a Google word processor? Probably not, but that's only because my imagination has been dulled by constant exposure to Word. If a Google word processor worked as quickly and well as Gmail and tied in the same sort of slick search features, I might change my mind. Here's where I think Google wins the battle. That "do no evil" corporate mantra has won me over. I trust Google. I have used their products and found they offer good functionality and don't overwhelm me with the advertising.
Google has another great advantage: because it doesn't sell software, it doesn't have to lock up its customers. Not only can Google give away its IM client, it can make it completely standards-based and interoperable. AOL and Microsoft have given away their IM clients, but only as a way of locking users into their networks. Microsoft, at least for the present, can't even say "standards-based and interoperable" -- which may make Microsoft-buys-Google a logical conclusion, if not a possible one, given the difference in their stock prices.
So Microsoft is going to have to slug it out. One thing we know about Microsoft is that it may be a lousy innovator, but it is a relentless perfecter -- eventually there will be a Version 3 or 4 or 5 that will get it right. Microsoft could be the next Google.