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John Foley
John Foley
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Business Technology: Microsoft Vs. Google: A Rorschach Test

The growing battle between Microsoft and Google, besides being fun to watch, has got me thinking about the nature of competition in the tech industry and where things are headed. So I took the old ink-blot test. Here are my gut reactions:

Kai-Fu Lee? Good riddance. The answer to stanching Microsoft's talent drain won't be found in the courtroom, despite a temporary restraining order in Microsoft's favor. If anything, Microsoft's attempt to scare off further defections by making an example of Lee--the Microsoft VP hired by Google to head up a new research center in China--could have the opposite effect. It makes Microsoft appear heavy-handed and paranoid, which is no way to attract the bright, young talent that Bill Gates keeps looking for.

Earth database? Missed opportunity. It's great that Google has created an app that makes it so easy to zoom in on your neighborhood or find a friend's house in a distant city. Microsoft, however, had a satellite database (TerraServer) and mapping application (MapPoint) years before Google. We know Microsoft is capable of reacting quickly to competitive threats. What's hard to understand is how the company could give up such a big head start.

Operating system? Windows. Yes, Windows. There's a lot of talk that Google's software-delivery model--apps offered online to anyone, anytime, at no cost--represents a new kind of computer operating environment, one that doesn't bode well for antiquities like Windows XP and, next, Windows Vista. But I can't help but believe that computers will continue to need a real operating system and that Microsoft's integrated approach to everything from high-tech wristwatches to data-center servers has staying power. I'm betting there's room for both approaches, though the line, admittedly, is getting fuzzy.

User interface? Google. Microsoft can talk until it's blue in the PC screen about how user-friendly Windows is, but Google has the advantage with its no-nonsense home page. The differences are considerable, so comparisons end quickly. Now it's Microsoft's turn to respond.

Openness? Depends what you mean. Microsoft isn't known for its open software, but the company's corporate culture (lawsuits against employees notwithstanding) should work to its advantage. Microsoft's evangelists are out spreading the good word, while Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer seem to have a Gold Club card to industry events. Google is more guarded in presenting itself to the world, as its firing of blogger Mark Jen earlier this year demonstrated. So far, Google has been able to have it both ways-enjoying the buzz of its success, while keeping mum about internal matters. Let's see how long that lasts.

Customer focus? Little Vincent's Pizzeria. That's the place in my home town that has perfected the art of the cheese-only slice and knows how to get the locals coming back for more. Microsoft talks a good game, but it's hard to see how those licensing fees and security bulletins translate into high customer-satisfaction scores. And when Google CEO Eric Schmidt recently talked about the company's plans to sell search appliances to business accounts, he put it this way: "Just think of the strategic value of that to Google." That's the wrong way to think about it, of course. Replace "Google" with "our customers" in that statement, and Schmidt will be on the right track.

Innovation? MicroGooglesoft. (I can't make up my mind.) Plenty of people would say that Google is the more innovative company, and an informal poll on InformationWeek's Web site bore that out. When asked which company would develop the most innovative software in the years ahead, 57% chose Google. But I don't buy that Microsoft's creative energy has been sapped.

Search? Rescuers looking for a lost kid. A journey to find meaning in life. Keywords on the Web a distant third.

John Foley
[email protected]

Bob Evans is on vacation and returns next week.

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