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Another Clash of the Titans?

What the battle between Google and Microsoft might mean for you.

Since the advent of the personal computer, it seems that every few years we are summoned to the arena as spectators to a clash between titans: IBM vs. Apple (circa 1980), Microsoft vs. IBM (late 1980’s), and now we are told Google vs. Microsoft. There have been other contests with similar billing that come to mind: Microsoft vs. Netscape, Intel vs. AMD, and Microsoft vs. Sun (with Java). There have been plenty of competitive pairings, not many with so much hype. A very few had marquee value for the general public.

The competition between these pairs of companies wasn’t all hype. They do compete and the outcomes of the competition may be important. It is always pointed out that such competition is good for the customer-more innovation, more choice, and lower prices, at the least. The winner, if there is any, gets to establish standards (de facto or otherwise), and those standards have generally helped the spread of computing.

However, familiar as these X vs.Y pairings have been, they can lead to a strange way of looking at the world of computing-narrow and short term. Take one example, IBM vs. Apple was said to represent the titanic struggle for control of the personal computer. As we know, IBM became the dominant company; at one point Apple Computer was reduced to less than 10 percent of the market. Yet IBM never ‘controlled’ even its own form of PC. Several companies surpassed IBM in PC sales. In fact, IBM recently sold its PC business to Lenovo of China. Apple is still an important supplier of computers and a major innovator in computing. IBM is still the largest computing company in the world.

Search me

It’s been a little over a year since the fanfare began for matching Google and Microsoft. I am not here to tell you that this is the biggest thing since the transistor, nor is it unimportant. I’ll also leave the name-calling and flaming bullet points to the legions of partisans. What seems more interesting is how to watch this particular spectacle, with all its media hype, and try to discern whether, if ever, it is producing something more than entertainment. With this particular pairing, it is not so easy.

In the past, most of these titanic struggles have been about one type of product- personal computers, CPUs, operating systems, browsers. This is a bit different. Although obviously Google and Microsoft are competing over Web searching, most observers agree that doesn’t tell the story.

For one thing, what is search? Unquestionably, Google’s approach is currently dominant, so much so that Googling is now the synonym for using the Web to search for information. While MSN (Microsoft Network) search is a major competitor, there are others such as Yahoo! and AOL. There are also other types of search products such as those that do desktop search, or aggregate search information, or provide sophisticated sorting and analysis capability. While Google currently has the edge in technology and content, it has many different competitors of many different kinds. Will ‘search’ be the instrument through which Google slays Microsoft? Is Internet searching the reason to watch Google vs. Microsoft? Probably not.

Who’s got the ad?

There are those who say that while searching features are important, it’s Google’s lead in using it for an advertising cash cow that makes it, potentially at least, a major competitor with Microsoft. (Keeping in mind that Microsoft is to software what IBM is to general computing-the biggest. Microsoft has revenues over $40 billion a year, Google just over $5 billion.)

Advertising revenue is very important to the companies. Microsoft is hopping all over itself to out-innovate and out-hustle Google for ad dollars (such as Microsoft’s new ad server). For businesses that use Web advertising, it’s also important. For us spectators, however, all this represents is (mostly) more irritation with distracting ads and unwanted information. No one is likely to ‘win’ this part of the competition.

Who can hold service?

The real battles between Microsoft and Google are going to be over a variety of Web services, most of which don’t exist yet. A good example of how important these can be is online mapping. This is not a piece of software you buy or download, it’s a service. You land on a Web site. It has a map. By pointing to various places on the map, all kinds of detailed information can pop up, sometimes with nifty graphics and multimedia. This service is provided by mashing (combining), data and information with an underlying map service provided by, for example, Google Maps. Think of all the businesses that can use maps–realtors, restaurants, hotels, and so on.

It’s a huge application and thanks to the visibility of Google Maps and currently about a half dozen competitors, it’s growing exponentially. Of course, Microsoft is one of the competitors. Will mashing maps be the decisive battle in the arena of Web services? Probably not. Who knows, in the long run some company other than Microsoft or Google may find the magic mapping formula?

So it will go for Web services. They will pop up like flowers in the spring. Some will be pretty but unimportant. Others will be important but take a long time to bear fruit. Google and Microsoft will be busy with cultivating services, but they will be far from alone. So what is the big deal about Google vs. Microsoft in this arena of Web services?

It’s (supposedly) a new world out there

The big deal is supposedly the future of computing. Marquee contests are always about the future of computing. It may even be true. The analysts’ line is that the Google vs. Microsoft pairing reflects the competition to define the ‘new form of computing’-meaning Web services. As you can probably tell, I’m skeptical. Not that Google and Microsoft aren’t worthy competitors, or that they won’t pull out the stops to find the right mix of Web services and advertising to keep their revenue streams growing. It’s just that this competition is all too convenient; both sides are busy using it as a lever to motivate their troops.

The computer media is full of set pieces about how this side or that side “gets it.” The real question is how important is the “new world” of Web services? Will it replace software on the PC or even the PC itself? Maybe not. Then this particular clash of titans may be about some important but niche moment in computing history. In the meantime, we spectators need to see real products…ahem, services…that get judged in the court of customer opinion. Competing in that court there will be a lot of players, not just Microsoft and Google. The others will have their day too. Wait and see.

Nelson King writes Pursuits bimonthly for ComputerUser.

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