Monday, October 10, 2005

I'm fascinated by the comparisons between Microsoft and Google. The basic premise seems to be that Google is what Microsoft was some years ago: powerful and domineering, with a hint of potentially anti-competitive thrown in. What's most fascinating is the presumption that Google is beating Microsoft at its own game, and in the process becoming the "new" Microsoft.

This is so fascinating not because it's true; I doubt that the veracity of the claim could ever be established, since it's based on so many indefinable characteristics. No, it's fascinating because those who make this claim are, I imagine, many of the same people who have attacked Microsoft all these years for being "monopolistic," for utilizing its "market strength" to oppress its customers and unfairly harm its competitors.

At the same time, some of the discussion goes a step further. It implies (or in some cases explicitly states) that Microsoft has grown soft, thus giving Google the opportunity to overtake it. This represents yet another example of the ability of the human mind to compartmentalize and thus simultaneously hold otherwise contradictory concepts: those who support this argument are claiming that Microsoft is both a rabid monopolist requiring governmental action to rein it in, and a middle-aged has-been incapable of competing in a rapidly changing Internet environment.

However, either Microsoft is a monopolist that utilizes its market power to compete unfairly and harm consumers, and thus requires government oversight and intervention, or it is a company whose alleged paranoia in competing so fervently was entirely understandable and logical given the fact that it could, in fact, lose the competition. Stated another way, if Microsoft's failure to respond quickly enough to Google's penetration into its space can result in Microsoft's ultimate downfall, then it should be entirely clear that Microsoft can, indeed, be beaten by a committed and talented opponent. In which case, of course, the monopolistic charges against Microsoft are demonstrably untrue.

Of course, I've known this for years. Microsoft's power stems not from its ownership of 90% of the PC operating system market, nor from it's domination of such spaces as the office suite and Web browser. Rather, it comes (or, perhaps, came) from its various strengths: innovation not in mere product features and benefits, but from the applicability of its software to real business and consumer needs; its support of third-party developers and hardware manufacturers; and highly competent businesspeople who simply made better decisions than their competitors.

There are those who might say that Microsoft is weakened, as intended, by the various government actions taken against it as a monopolist. And certainly, one could presume that Microsoft is foregoing various more aggressive actions for fear of further government intervention. If that's true, though, then it merely proves the point that such government action is wrong on its face: it would mean that Google is succeeding not by its own efforts and abilities, but only because it has benefited from government intervention. One is left unable to know whether Google could ever beat Microsoft on a level playing field, and one is also left wondering why so many other companies have failed under similar circumstances.

Personally, I don't believe that Microsoft has been seriously hindered by the attacks against it over the last few decades. Rather, I think that Google vs. Microsoft will reveal the truth that companies win or lose base on their own abilities. I look forward to the fight.