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10/13/2006
04:15 PM
John Soat
John Soat
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IT Confidential: Google Versus The Microsoft Machine

As the search giant and the software king square off, Novell is a ghostly presence.

Submitted for your approval: Two combatants square off in the marketplace of ideas. One, a network powerhouse; the other, the reigning software heavyweight champ. The victor in this algorithmic altercation will determine the future of the computer industry.

That's how Rod Serling, the cigarette-toting host of the 1960s television series The Twilight Zone might have introduced last week's news about Google offering an integrated package of PC applications, specifically a word processor and spreadsheet software, that will compete with Microsoft's ubiquitous Office suite of productivity apps, the next major version of which, Office 2007, is due by year's end.

Google's integrated applications go by the name Google Docs & Spreadsheets (see "Google Weds Writerly And Spreadsheets"). The online software is available for free on Google's site. Google has other online applications that may be added to the mix soon, such as a popular calendar program.

But there's a Twilight Zone-ish twist to this story. That introduction could have been written 12 years ago. That's when the network software powerhouse Novell went toe-to-toe with Microsoft in the still-emerging market for client-server applications. In 1994, Novell bought WordPerfect, the well-regarded word processor, then acquired the Quattro Pro spreadsheet from Borland later that year. Those apps, combined with the Unix operating system Novell bought from AT&T the year before and its still-dominant NetWare network operating system, were intended to deliver a devastating blow to Microsoft, which was touting its Office application suite and its newly minted Windows NT operating system.

The man who orchestrated that attack, Ray Noorda, died last week at the age of 82. Noorda was the CEO of Novell from 1983 to 1995. Noorda took Novell from a failing network-device vendor to arguably the most powerful software-only company of its day, before a certain Seattle company elbowed its way past it to the top.

Noorda's anti-Microsoft mission reminds me of one particular Twilight Zone episode. It takes place in the near future, when boxing matches between humans are outlawed and replaced by fights between humanoid robots. A down-on-his-luck promoter, played by Lee Marvin, arrives for a match in a Podunk town, his robot fighter in tow. At fight time, he can't get his robot to work. The promoter needs the money, so he gins up a disguise and fights the robot opponent himself.

Noorda was a fierce competitor but also, from most reports, a genuinely nice guy. He coined the term "coopetition" to describe the needed effort among competitors to arrive at the consensus required to drive the computer industry forward. Bill Gates called him the industry's "grumpy grandpa"--an unintended compliment. But history will judge Noorda's effort harshly; it crippled Novell and didn't dent the Microsoft juggernaut. Noorda was ousted as CEO shortly after.

My question is this: In the square-off between Google and Microsoft, who's the robot and who's the human? It's tempting to think of Google as the underdog, and Microsoft the mechanical warrior. But Office is getting old and Microsoft appears a little more desperate than it has in the past. Google, on the other hand, is a seemingly relentless machine that may have an inherent advantage with its online-oriented approach to productivity applications--clearly the future of software.

There's only one place you'll find the answer, of course--in the Twilight Zone.

Got a cigarette? Or an industry tip? Send them to jsoat@cmp.com, or phone 516-562-5326.


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