It seems like it's getting close to impossible to talk about Microsoft ( MSFT) without sooner or later mentioning Google ( GOOG). Or vice versa.

The rivalry sparked a heated debate on this site this past week. First, Doug Kass made the case that "Microsoft will provide the first real challenge to Google," prompting Michael Comeau to counter that any fall for Google won't be caused by "inroads from Gates & Co."

Then Cody Willard argued that "Google still has everyone, including Microsoft, on their heels, and Google's on the offensive rather than the defensive."

Elsewhere on the Internet, John Battelle, the author of the recently published The Search (and, full disclosure, my former boss at The Industry Standard), stirred up a discussion among bloggers by wondering: "Has the worm turned?" For Google, that is, as it did for Microsoft at the end of the 1990s, when its plans for complete domination of online commerce fell apart in the face of antitrust cases.

To summarize, one of these things is going to happen:
  • Google cleans Microsoft's clock.
  • Microsoft cleans Google's clock.
  • Google's clock stops after the growth in online spending peaks.
  • Google is Microsoft, following the same hubris-driven trajectory.
  • Before I cast my vote, let's look at some of the issues raised.

    The Enemy Within

    Vista vs. GoogleNet: If Microsoft has a silver bullet left in its gun belt, it's Vista -- the long awaited, long-delayed successor to Windows XP. But with great potential comes great risk. When Vista comes out next summer -- if it comes out next summer -- the Internet will be less PC-centric than ever. Meanwhile, from Massachusetts to Brazil, Windows and Office are giving way to cheap, open-source alternatives. Desktop toolbars from Google and others will make Vista a less omnipresent search option. That much is certain.

    Much less clear is what Vista will be. Back in 2002, Fortune magazine portrayed Gates' vision for Vista (then code-named Longhorn) as a seamless interface for all text, music, video files on the Net or a local hard drive. Reactions to the first beta of Vista this summer were strikingly devoid of buzz. The search function seemed like a slicked-up version of Google Desktop, not a Google killer.

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