Home Part 2: Changing Climates for Microsoft and Google, Desktops and Webs

Part 2: Changing Climates for Microsoft and Google, Desktops and Webs

Written by John Milan and edited by
Richard MacManus. Images by Jon Cornforth.
This is the second article of a two-part series – see
Part 1 here

Turning the Tide

The other day I was trying out IE 7. It has a nifty feature that
downloads all the elements of a web page and stores them together in one file for future
viewing. We do a lot of work with SharePoint at my company and I was curious how many bytes a
generic, freshly created Document Workspace takes. It turned out to be 715K or so, which
is surprisingly close to a megabyte. Thinking maybe this was MS/SharePoint specific, I
tried a new Google Docs page (472K), a new Google Spreadsheet page (418K) and the front
page of Yahoo Finance (429K). Somewhere along the lines, as HTML pages have entered the
mainstream as real workhorses, the nimble HTML burros of the early web have morphed into
plodding, three-tiered-architecture clydesdales. It doesn’t take too many clicks and page
refreshes before you’ve downloaded more bytes than a comparable rich application. Many,
many more bytes. And that’s just one page.

Could history repeat itself? What will be the tipping point for a few rich application
machines to replace scores of web page clydesdales? One possibility is an increase in the cost of all those bytes, which is
why Google (and most other web application providers) really would like
to see a Net Neutrality amendment or bill [update: we edited the previous sentence after publication, based on comment 14 below].

Ektasis – Beginning to Swirl

More likely is something like Ektasis, a startup
company that recently introduced itself to the world. Building a new platform, as noted
earlier, is difficult enough. Handicapping it with a startup’s cash constraints is
insanity. But it’s folks like these that make the world a better place. And thankfully,
they do have a very impressive solution to the install/uninstall problem facing rich
applications today. It’s a solution that Microsoft would do well to copy and Google to
study: fully functional client software that can install and run with a click, and an
automatic code versioning/updating system.
This means instead of downloading entire
applications, pieces of applications – individual classes or object files – can be
retrieved and fine-grained, surgical updates can be performed. What they’ve done is taken
the best practices of browsers and web page assembly – and applied it to desktop apps.
Ektasis has a great strategy for merging the desktop and web environments. Perhaps they
will be able to catch the right wave.

Any virtual machine can also use this piecemeal download and assembly strategy.
In theory, an operating system like Windows could do it too. But in practice, because of
its own success, there are too many millions of windows applications to support – some
written by software publishers, most written in offices and cubicles in every part of the
world. Therefore the better solution is to lay new groundwork for a better virtual
machine, something that includes a smart loader/linker like the Ektasis framework. This
will negate the installation/uninstallation advantage web applications enjoy today.
Furthermore, it will give developers more choices in how they want their apps to

More choices? The other nice thing about virtual machines is that they are portable,
just like a browser. But it’s not for running .NET apps on Macs, though that may happen.
Rather, portability is gaining in importance for mobile devices. Any company with an eye
for growth has noticed cell phone sales far surpassing PC sales. Add millions of cell
phones, Blackberries, SideKicks to the environment and it’s clear the playing field of
tomorrow is a whole lot bigger than the playing field of today – if you’re able to span

Google’s Dilemma: The Next Big Thing?

As enormous as Google seems, its position is far from
unassailable and their options are surprisingly limited. There is nothing preventing
Microsoft from duplicating Google’s online strategy, other than prime mover momentum.
Even with copious advertising profits and their astounding growth rate, Google makes only a little
more than 10% of what Microsoft makes. Which means
MSFT can easily outspend GOOG. Enough to slow Google’s current momentum? Probably not.
Enough to pounce on Google when advertising profits suffer a downtown? Most definitely

In fact, Google 2006 reminds me a bit of AOL in 1996: long on one cash cow,
short on any others. In 1996
AOL was the growing giant. By 2001 the giant’s food source had
changed. The cause of AOL’s problems was over-reliance on their growth engine. Once it
started sputtering, they had no other profitable property to rev up. As a result, even
though they had well known properties (AIM, ‘You’ve got Mail’, etc), they could not
monetize them and thus were dead in the water. 

For all the apps Google puts out, very few can be considered ‘sticky’, and even fewer
can be monetized outside of advertising – it’s too easy to go to Yahoo or MSN for the same
free service.

Indeed, Microsoft is already encroaching at each potential feeding ground. Google
offers Earth, Microsoft offers Virtual Earth. Google offers AdWords, Microsoft offers
AdCenter. Google offers documents and spreadsheets, Microsoft offers Office Live. Google
invests heavily in Firefox, Microsoft shakes the dust off Internet Explorer. Google has
built its momentum by brilliantly exploiting the web. While Microsoft just seeks to match
them, they have a fighting chance. But what happens when Microsoft takes the battle to
the next level and introduces a smarter, portable virtual machine that unifies the
development experience for PCs and mobile devices? Google answers with… what?

Perhaps they can invest more in Firefox. Perhaps Eric Schmidt fondly remembers his Sun
days and resuscitates JavaOS (he did just
‘The Network is the Computer,’ after all). Unfortunately for Google,
Microsoft is more than a match for them on both counts. One possibility is buying an
undervalued property aligned with its business, but currently lacking frothy sizzle. A
company like EMC (an
information infrastructure company). It aligns well with Google’s information driven
goals, has lots of assets and even more relationships. But even that may be window
dressing for EMC’s crown jewel, which might be worth the acquisition alone: VMWare.

Acquisition options for Google

VMWare has actually, unbelievably, beaten Microsoft on its own turf – building a
better virtual machine (the V and M in VMWare). I’m sure they could create virtual
machines that would run .NET and .NET apps. While Google would never be able to root out
Windows on PC machines, they could capture the bulk of billions and billions of cell
phones, mobile and personal devices that will deluge us over the next several years.

Such a staid purchase, however, might wash a bit too much glitter off Google. For
something a little more snazzy, and just a bit more affordable, they could make an even
bigger splash and buy Adobe. It’s all funny money for
Google at this point and buying Adobe would give them fabulous software assets in PDF,
Flash and Photoshop – three pivotal areas of the web, and markets Microsoft has been
unable to capture. Furthermore, Adobe’s ambitious Apollo project could become a crown
jewel, too. Finally, Adobe is just up the creek from Mountain View. (Full Disclosure: I’m
a former employee and own shares of Adobe)

But Google will have to act soon. Microsoft has already taken away one potential
option for Google – Novell’s .NET Mono project. Microsoft must be thinking about the
mobile deluge too. They’ve already met Google head on at every online PC location, and
there’s every reason to believe the same thing will happen at every mobile hotspot as

If Google wants to avoid being the next AOL and instead make a real grab for software
supremacy, it needs to expand and diversify its revenue source. Fast. Firefox is not
enough; their own OS is not viable. With their stock price Google has some options.
Perhaps a solid information infrastructure provider like EMC, or a 24 carat technology
treasure like Adobe. Either way, Google needs continued brilliance at managing their
search armada, stickier internet properties they can monetize and an extra boost to
propel their ascent past Windows.

And they need Microsoft to make a mistake.

Windows is Dead. Long Live Windows.

Have you ever read Slashdot and noticed that every article about Microsoft is accompanied
by a picture of Bill Gates made up as a Borg? While it may appear in bad taste, it’s
actually a very flattering compliment. For most of their history, Microsoft has been able
to adapt like very few companies before it – and it speaks to the very core of their
success. Though the software environment may be warming in Redmond – the water lapping at
their ankles and the investors clamoring for greater returns from the hunt – Microsoft has
usually been able to make hard, but correct, choices. And when they don’t – then scariest
of all, they learn from their mistakes. The result is that Microsoft has a solid position at
the top of the software food chain.

Learning from their mistake with Linux is what led to the recent deal with Novell.
Microsoft’s initial mistake? Not taking Linux seriously. Now it’s a serious headache for
them. Though it may seem a stretch today, another headache had been looming on
Microsoft’s horizon – especially with the growing importance of .NET. That was Novell’s
Mono project. Mono allows .NET code to run on any machine that can run Mono, similar to
HTML code running on any machine a browser runs on. But Novell needed the money;
Microsoft needed to remove a threat. The solution: pay chump change (for Microsoft) to
Novell for access to Mono. Lesson learned and problem solved.

But just as Google 2006 reminds me of AOL 1996, Microsoft 2007 will soon have a major
decision to make similar to Microsoft 1997. Back in 1997, strange as it may seem, Java
was the rage and elements
within Microsoft were comparing and contrasting the virtues of virtual machines with the
ungainliness of Windows. A management shakeup resulted and Microsoft, correctly,
continued to orient itself around their OS and fortified any cracks in the foundation.
Fast-forward to 2007 and Microsoft will again be comparing and contrasting virtual
machines with an even more unwieldy Windows.

This time however, Windows is acting like a dam blocking a surging ocean of
innovation. Further fortifications are useless – you can’t stop a sea change in
technology. Of course this time Microsoft happens to own both options on the table: a
nimble virtual machine that can run on as many devices as needed, or an unbowed warhorse
ready to fight the last battle. Once again it’s the horse that must go. Not Windows the
brand, but Windows inextricably tied to the PC platform.

Except in 2007, it won’t be Bill Gates delivering the memo. The mantle of technical
leadership, and compelling memo
writer, has fallen on Ray Ozzie’s shoulders. His greatest test? Slowly defocusing Windows
bound to a PC and refocusing on a portable, virtual machine ‘Windows’ fueled by .NET and
online services. My company worked with Ray’s former company, Groove, for many years and while I haven’t had a chance
to sit down with him, I know he’s very capable technically. But it’s the selling part –
the clarity of vision, the sureness of direction, the respect of employees, the sheer
force of personality – that is extremely difficult for 99.9% of the world. In that
respect, Bill is an exceedingly tough act to follow.

How important is it to have a leader when coming to a fork in the stream? History
tells us that most empires start crumbling from within before the outward edifices are
breeched. Microsoft head count has nearly quadrupled since 1997, as has revenue. There’s
a good chance the number of internal fiefdoms has quadrupled – as well as competing
interests. It was definitely surprising
how little the web was mentioned in the recent Vista/Office 2007 press event. Perhaps
Google’s best bet is whispering sweet nothings in every willing ear.

When the Storm Clears

But for all the managers, marketers, salesmen and saleswomen hired,
Microsoft is still, at its core, a technical company. In order for the outside world to
know if the technocrats at Microsoft have bought in to Ray’s vision, the key development
to watch will be ‘old’ Windows being put out to pasture. Again, Windows the brand lives
on; Windows the tightly integrated OS for x86 computers does not. It’s not a unique
situation, it’s just that the stakes have never been higher. DOS was a tremendous cash
cow before Microsoft replaced it with the greatest cash cow in history: Windows. There’s
every reason to believe the next cash cow will be even greater. If Microsoft engineers
can convince everyone it’s time for Windows, following the revolutionary trend, to
disappear and be re-imagined as a virtual machine intricately tied to the web, then
Google will be up a creek no matter what they do.

Remember, you always want to follow the data. Microsoft and Google are struggling to
own it on the estimated 234 million PCs shipping this year. But it will
be the first company that can extend their reach to the 245 million mobile devices
shipped last quarter that
will be the winner. While Google has the richer feeding grounds as Microsoft struggles
with the current Windows/Desktop status quo, it’s actually Microsoft with the canoe, the
paddles and the most rods and reels. If they get everyone on board, then Microsoft should
continue ruling the land and the seas.

Until the next unintended consequence.

About ReadWrite’s Editorial Process

The ReadWrite Editorial policy involves closely monitoring the tech industry for major developments, new product launches, AI breakthroughs, video game releases and other newsworthy events. Editors assign relevant stories to staff writers or freelance contributors with expertise in each particular topic area. Before publication, articles go through a rigorous round of editing for accuracy, clarity, and to ensure adherence to ReadWrite's style guidelines.

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