Microsoft is too busy squeezing nickles out of its own customers--and too sure they'll come back for more--to recognize the key to Google's success: simplicity.
Who is it who said history repeats itself? While that's only true once in a while, it happens often enough to make you wonder. Over the last week, Microsoft announced that it will be raising the bar in its ongoing product-advancement-neutral efforts to prevent piracy of its established products, like Windows. In its effort to extract every dime from customers who have already put up with a lot of grief just for being Windows users, Microsoft will be asking them to jump through a new authentication hoop before they'll be allowed to download security patches via Windows Update for the widespread operating system.
This is a bad idea, both because honest Windows users will be additionally burdened, and because those who persist (sometimes unwittingly) in using pirated copies of Windows will not be protected. When it comes to maladies in the area of spyware, viruses, and worms, we're all in the same boat. The analogy to human illness is apt, since malware has a tendency to spread from computer to computer when it's unchecked.
For Microsoft, however, the matter appears to be solely about money. Instead of using its resources to build better, more usable, more secure software products, it is bent on making everyone shell out for every one of its products. While the company certainly has every ethical and legal right to protect its investment and to collect payment for its work, it doesn't or shouldn't have a right to risk our computer security to get there.
Microsoft intends to implement the new authentication system by the middle of the year, but if you want a taste of it now, try downloading Microsoft AntiSpyware 1.0 Beta 1. There's an optional Windows-ownership-authentication step that is probably similar to what Microsoft intends to roll out in Windows Update. (For more on Microsoft AntiSpyware 1.0, see this Security Pipeline story.)
So what's this have to do with history? While Microsoft is fiddling with anti-piracy measures, seemingly more concerned with making its shareholders happy every quarter than with charting a course to success, Google appears to be revving up to take over.
"These guys are the new Microsoft. They're going after Microsoft very quietly, very shrewdly. Google Desktop, as humble as it is, is a step squarely into the desktop space. Microsoft is caught because, while it can react ruthlessly to Google's subtle moves, that just makes it appear to be more ruthless. Google is oh-so-quiet and unassuming. That's not just guile, it's part of the corporate culture. Microsoft has a right to be 'paranoid.'"
In the two and a half weeks since I wrote those words, Google has been in the news almost perpetually. The company has announced a free photo service, a video-search service, and a TV-search service. It's also rumored to be working on a VoIP product, and, just this week, Google hired lead Firefox programmer Ben Goodger.
While continuing to work on Firefox about half his time, Goodger will clearly be working on other projects for Google. Rumors about Google developing its own browser to compete with Internet Explorer have been rampant for some time, and industry watchers have noted several Google moves that support the theory, but the hiring of Goodger is far and away the most resounding of them.
In fact, the "upstart" Google, whose recent IPO is the most successfully tech IPO of the century (so far), is grappling with Microsoft in many areas. Microsoft's MSN and Yahoo are actually gaining some ground on Google's lead in the search area, according to a recent study by Keynote Systems.
Meanwhile, desktop search may sound unimportant, but it is key ground for the future of the desktop operating system business. Google is just one of many companies attempting to mark off some turf there with Google Desktop. But Microsoft most likely perceives Google Desktop as the biggest threat to that aspect of its operating system even though Google's desktop search product (still in beta) isn't one of the company's better efforts.
Google and Yahoo are perhaps better positioned to go after some of the emerging consumer tech areas than is Microsoft. They are smaller and nimbler, and they're not carrying around the same kind of corporate identity issues. My favorite thing about IBM from 25 years ago was how its internal corporate culture prided itself to the point of arrogance on its marketing abilities. Nothing could have been further from the truth.
Similarly, Microsoft today is in danger of kidding itself about its ability to earn the trust of the average technology consumer. The all-out focus on anti-piracy isn't winning any new friends either. People want the simplicity that Google seems to exude with everything it does. People want free.
Google's corporate mantra is "do no evil." Microsoft has become everything it originally stood against, and in so doing, has left open the back door open to Google and others bold enough to go after new markets the hell with conventional wisdom. It's the David and Goliath story, repeating over and over again.
Only time will tell if Google's shrewd instincts, luck, and brashness win it a huge piece of the pie.
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