Google and Microsoft Line Up for Battle

By | November 16, 2004

Recent moves in the technology sector have caused an obvious conclusion to be drawn: Microsoft and Google are at war. It’s a bit of a hard metaphor to ignore. Google is releasing desktop products, specifically ones designed to provide better search than Microsoft’s built in Windows search utility. At the same time, Microsoft is ramping up their new search engine for release sometime before next summer.

Their development lines are, in many ways, beginning to cross, which is something that is inevitable for two companies bent on control.

What few people realize is that while Microsoft effectively has a large share of the desktop OS and Office suite markets, it isn’t Microsoft’s ultimate goal. Microsoft’s ultimate goal is to become the de facto platform of choice for every application in the world.

In the 80s and 90s, this desire was manifested in the Windows OS targeting of the company. These days, however, Microsoft is attempting to redefine the platform, and every move they make is an example of that changing direction. Obviously the next versions of Windows will be a large part of that strategy. It is, after all, hard to ignore the desktop in any plans. However, the growth of Microsoft’s web-based platforms such as ASP.NET and Web Services combined with a more open API strategy for its newest applications is evidence of Microsoft’s renewed focus on creating a ubiquitous platform.

What even fewer people realize is that it is also Google’s ultimate goal to have a monopoly. It is Google’s stated desire to be the single point of contact for all information in the world. This bear’s repeating. Google, ultimately, isn’t a search company. Google is an information gathering, information management and information storage company. A large part of that is search. A large part of that are other applications such as Blogger, the world’s most popular blogging platform as well as the acquisition of Keyhole – an application which effectively contains the largest amount of searchable geophysical data in the world, with a nice interface to boot.

When viewed in this light, Microsoft wanting to be the platform and Google wanting to be the information store, it is hard to imagine Google and Microsoft as real competitors, at least in the long term. In the short term, though, the battle lines are very real.

After all, Microsoft is making inroads in search. And Google is trying to become a platform. So, for now, we are seeing very real positioning taking place, even as both companies realize that they need each other in the long term.

A key area where the two companies are about to stage a rare open battle is in the Desktop Search marketplace. The Desktop Search space is a fairly new addition in terms of the amount of press, and funding, it is receiving. The sudden influx comes from the realization that Windows’ built in search is basically useless at finding truly relevant data. We, the users, have – over the years – gotten used to the inadequacies. We cope by trying to remember filenames, or by limiting our searches to certain file types and date modified periods.

But, if you look at your computer as simply a microcosm of the whole web, we realize that when we are looking for something online, we don’t – ever – search based on the filename or when it was created. No, we search based on what we are actually looking for. Keywords, subjects, topical relevance: these are the fruits we are trying to find.

And it is this simplicity of search that is being brought to the desktop. The largest players are Google and Microsoft’s MSN Search team, though the smaller players are already well entrenched. Companies like X1 have been doing very well in the desktop search space, for example.

Earlier this quarter, Google released a beta of its Google Desktop Search tool. While it initially received high praise, after only a few weeks security experts began to find serious holes in it, and privacy advocates were up in arms about the ability for anyone to search anyone else’s data on a computer.

Google has, as a result, effectively gone back to the drawing board. While they would never admit a mistake, never mind a defeat, they have pushed back the release date for the Google Desktop Search tool to “indefinite” and have, in the process, given Microsoft’s MSN Search tool a rather large window of opportunity.

Microsoft’s Desktop Search tool is expected to do what Google’s tool did well – find files while providing a high level of relevance – while tying it into the OS to allow for some more advanced features, such as actually being able to open files and emails you’ve found.

Microsoft’s tool isn’t due in beta until the end of this year, though, and isn’t likely to be publicly released until the second quarter of next year. Google’s development team operates in greater secrecy. Google’s GMail product has been in beta for nearly a year. Similarly, its merchandise search tool, Froogle, has been in beta for nearly 2 years. In fact, Google hasn’t shown a great propensity for ever exiting beta, so it is difficult to judge who will come out with a more complete product before next summer – if they are able to come out with one at all.

On the opposite end of the pond, we have Microsoft preparing to release a new search engine by mid next year as well. Most industry watchers are expecting the new search engine to produce results which are as good as Google, have slightly more advertising but also have some enticing features. Ultimately, Microsoft’s goal is to sever its ties with Yahoo’s search results, while keeping the same amount of users. From that solid platform, it should be able to innovate even further.

This move comes at a time when Google is facing serious industry doubts about its search results. Earlier this year, during the summer to be more precise, Google updated its search algorithm, and the result has been that popular search terms are now polluted with “spammers” – individuals or companies seeking to simply get high in the results instead of having actual products. Google has been attempting to fight this fight for years, and it was the expectation that the summer update would, in fact, rid the world of such scams forever. However the opposite happened, leaving Google in an increasingly vulnerable position.

Is Google likely to lose the throne as the King of Search? Not likely. Nearly 90% of searchers currently use Google for their searching. However, those same 90% also take 11 minutes to find what they are looking for and will often use more than 3 search engines to find it. The search market, then, is an increasingly volatile one. A market where “another Google” is entirely likely to appear: a company that can not only provide relevant results, but can also help users find what they are looking for in 2-3 minutes.

Where does that leave us? In the short term that leaves us with Google fragile on the search front, with Microsoft making small inroads. It leaves us with Microsoft being weak in desktop search, but with Google only making small inroads there as well. And it leaves us with a long term goal for both companies which should see them become close friends at some point.

Whether either company actually survives the threat posed by the other, and by outside forces – Linux in Microsoft’s case, and a better search engine in Google’s – remains to be seen. However, the development of the relationship should definitely be an interesting thing to watch.

Later this week we will be covering a battle that Google is fighting on another front: with Yahoo!

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