October 24, 2005

Google vs. Microsoft

Even as Microsoft won a victory recently against its new and increasingly agile young competitor Google in the case of Kai-Fu Lee, Google continues to nibble at the margins of Microsoft's more existential questions - the need for its software in the first place in an age when Web development architecture has taken the "Web 2.0" route offered by schemes like AJAX.

Kai-Fu LeeOn the Lee case, Microsoft has said it wants the case to be decided in the state of Washington, where a judge ruled last month that the hiring can proceed, with the stipulation Kai-Fu Lee cannot recruit from Microsoft. Google is attempting to keep the case in California where non-compete agreements are said to be viewed with less rigidity.

Microsoft initially filed suit in Seattle's King County Superior Court in July, claiming Kai-Fu Lee violated that agreement when the search giant hired him. Google then countersued Microsoft in California, in an attempt to have the noncompete clause declared invalid.

The battle for Kai-Fu Lee, a former vice president with the software giant, underlines a growing animosity between the two companies, with Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer allegedly pitching such a fit after losing one executive in 2004 that he threatened to "kill Google" over the continued poaching of Redmond's top brass, even flinging furniture and dropping more F-bombs than I've heard tell in awhile.

Well, Microsoft won its latest round in the fight that has at last made explicit the smoldering rivalry between the two otherwise mostly indirect competitors.

Google Sun AllianceBut announcements between Google and Sun have indicated Google's interest in helping partners like Sun compete head to head with Microsoft in the office suite market with the recent release by Sun of OpenOffice.org 2.0 - a significant upgrade to the prior version which, if reviews are to be believed, is a virtual replacement (for free under the open source GPL) for MS-Office. According to Jonathan Schwartz, Sun's president:

“OpenOffice.org is on a path toward being the most popular office suite the world has ever seen; providing users with safety, choice, and an opportunity to participate in one of the broadest community efforts the Internet has ever seen. As a member of that community, I’d like to offer my heartiest congratulations.”

For sure, it gives Sun a new lease on life after a very tough few years after being the dot in the dot-com crash. McNealy was in full effect with his "network is the computer" mantra, so much exemplified by Google's strategy. If you can call it that: Eric Schmidt, who used to work for Sun and is now Google's CEO (after jumping ship a few years ago from the sinking Novell) even mentioned how he delights in the absence of a strategy... well, I guess. No matter how underwhelming the actual announcement, it creates powerful symbolism in the marketplace where Microsoft has left an opening.

Still, OpenOffice.org has Microsoft running scared from OpenDocument - a revolutionary file format that could at last end the Word/Excel/PowerPoint tyranny even more than PDF has done. Which is why, perhaps, Microsoft licensed PDF support for next year's release of the the updated MS-Office suite. But their enthusiasm for SaaS (Software as a Service) is palpable amid McNealy’s remarks about Windows being the last, sad representative of the old client/server computing world and is ”so last millennium.”

Microsoft's reaction to the announcement took the move in stride, but the evidence lies in nothing less than Google's patents that they've got Microsoft squarely sighted in, as it "builds a patent fence" around search and takes on Yahoo first, then leveraging cutting edge user interface design technologies present in Google Maps (which could challenge PowerPoint) and Gmail (the RTF technology already offering about 70 percent of the functionality behind Word). Deployed on the "Googleplex" platform Google has created as its supercomputer-like infrastructure, calling into question Microsoft's very necessity isn't far around the corner.

Of course, Microsoft has seen such threats before - when Netscape challenged the idea that an OS was even necessary and applications could be run in Sun's Java within the browser. We all know how that ended... despite continuing market share battles with Mozilla Foundation's open source alternative to Internet Explorer (which I use myself), in Firefox.

But Redmond won't go down for the count easily. They've just reorganized decisively to take on such threats. And, while Microsoft might not have invented the idea of "embrace and extend"; they do seem to have perfected it.

- Arik

Posted by Arik Johnson at October 24, 2005 12:00 AM