Is Google really the monopoly Steve Ballmer says it is, or was Ballmer throwing the verbal equivalent of a chair when he told Microsoft's analyst conference Thursday that the search company was playing outside of the rules?
Given Microsoft's long and storied history with antitrust investigations, for anyone from Redmond to come out and blow the monopoly whistle is an irony so thick you can hardly breathe to say it. But there was current Microsoft CEO Ballmer, answering a question about how hard it was to make money in the consumer cloud services space, when he made this remark:
Google does it. They have this incredible, amazing, dare I say monopoly that we are the only person left on the planet trying to compete with. We're the only guys in the world trying.
Not only ironic, but a wee bit arrogant as well, considering that China's Baidu and Russia's Yandex are giving Google a run for their money in those markets and, according to SearchEngineLand. More recent results show that Bing is doing better than Yahoo in the U.S. search engine rankings, but not by much—not enough to justify Ballmer's take as Microsoft being the lone defender against the Google juggernaut.
As much as Ballmer complains about Google's advantage in search and intimates that Google has an unfair advantage, he cannot erase the fact that Bing still hasn't overcome the one thing that Google does have over its competitors: being the first leader in its market.
That's an advantage that Microsoft once enjoyed when it managed to quickly edge out OS/2 with Windows in the Intel PC market, becoming the dominant player in PC space until this day, even as they were found to be abusing their position as well with antitrust practices.
Now the shoe is on the other foot, with Google being the breakout hit in search and Microsoft trying to steer an also-ran Bing product into a better position in a market where their competitor's brand name is now a verb in several languages. Of course Google must be monopolistic, Microsoft will maintain, because isn't any company going to be with that kind of power? Ballmer continues:
I believe that Google's practices are worthy of discussion with competition authority. And we have certainly discuss them with competition authorities. I don't think their practices are getting less merit tortuous of discussion. We highlighted some bad practices in advertising and discussions with regulators, the bundling they're doing with You Tube and Google Maps.
If you apply Ballmer's logic to other sectors in which Microsoft would like to complete, then it is only a matter of time before the trash-talk starts about Amazon Web Services' cloud services, which hold a commanding lead in that particular market. If Azure can't compete there, will Ballmer & Co. start whining about an Amazon monopoly? Based on this week's comments, it would seem that day is coming.
Microsoft has been taking very serious private steps to try to take down Google a notch or two or five: the company is part of the Fair Search trade organization that regularly lobs volleys at Google for what it calls unfair search practices. Ballmer's remarks to analysts are the most outspoken Microsoft has publicly been concerning Google.
Irony aside, does Microsoft have a point? There do seem to be instances where Google does seem to have too much of a hold on segments of the marketplace. But is this antitrust behavior? After all, Google's Android operating system doesn't prevent me from using a Vimeo app in place of YouTube. But according to Microsoft, Google has apparently being yanking Microsoft's chain as it tries to build a native YouTube app for Windows Phone.
This is another one of Microsoft's weapons in its antitrust arsenal against Google, which may be anticompetitive or a result of Microsoft not following the stipulations of the API for YouTube's service. Time will tell.
Given Ballmer's own prediliction for hyperbole and generating fear, uncertainty and doubt when it comes to competitors (he once referred to the Linux operating system as "a cancer" when it became clear that Linux was going to dominate the server market), it would be prudent to take Ballmer's remarks with all the seriousness they deserve.
There is, of course, a possibility that someday Microsoft could find a charge that actually sticks as far as a Google monopoly. But Google has thus far been very careful to avoid crossing the monopoly line, even as it walks very close to it.
Because after all, Google had a great teacher to demonstrate what not to do when trying to corner a market: Microsoft itself.