Beyond the Threat of Mutual Destruction


The New York Times gave a good deal of valuable real estate on its Op-Ed page yesterday to blogger Robert Cringely, who writes about the ongoing battle between Microsoft and Google. This battle, of course, has most recently manifested itself in the introductions of the Bing search engine from Microsoft and Google's Chrome browser and operating system.


Cringely's take is that both companies are being highly Machiavellian. Google has no hope of taking significant market share from Windows and Microsoft isn't going to become the search king with Bing. That's not the goal, however. Cringely says that both companies essentially want to keep the other behemoth honest. The most apt analogy is to mutually assured destruction, the arms race and the Cold War.


There is a lot to Cringely's analysis. However, it's possible to make two critiques.


For one thing, it wouldn't have hurt to take the mutually assured destruction analogy to its logical conclusion, which is possible in the post-Cold War era. Says Cringely:

Some company with a new idea and no legacy products to defend will eventually arise to clean Microsoft's clock.

That company can be compared to the terrorists that became civilized humanity's biggest threat once the verities of the Cold War passed. (Of course, I'm not impling evil nature here). Terrorists are ideologically driven and have no legacy products (i.e., people and identifiable borders) to protect. They can take their shot largely without fear of retribution. So do startup companies that are based purely on the desire to perform a task better. They have no legacy investment to protect and no customers that competitors can go after. It's more or less a rhetorical point, though it is worth mentioning that the useful analogy now has been extended.


The bigger issue Cringely's analysis is that it oversimplifies things a bit. While it makes sense to think of Chrome and Bing as implicit threats to Microsoft and Google, respectively, it is important to remember that they must succeed in order to play that role. The sense of the piece is that their mere existence will cause enough consternation in the other camp that they will tend to play relatively nice with the other.


The reality is, however, that it both must do well enough to justify that fear -- and is It is entirely possible that they will. The way is a bit less clear for Bing, though it is obvious from comparisons at PC World and Search Engine Land that that the new search engine can hold its own or even more against Google. For instance, PC World writer Tom Spring looks at 13 search-related categories and, in a subjective assessment, gives Bing the nod in six. Google wins only three, with Yahoo taking the rest. The bottom line is that there is room for Bing to make itself felt.


That's even more pronounced in the case of the Chrome OS. The operating system is fundamentally different than Windows in that it was designed from the ground up with the Web as the primary development and execution environment. This is a very important attribute in a world in which comparatively lower horse power netbooks, smartphones and other mobile devices are in the ascendancy.