In fact, each delay of the new operating software seemed to also ratchet down its ambitions, until Vista became less of a revolution and more of a mere revision of XP.

Meanwhile, buzz started spreading about something called GoogleNet -- a free, all-in-one gateway to all information everywhere -- whether on your PC, in a library or anywhere on the Web. It was Gates' dream in 2002, only Google wasn't as likely to compromise. Of course, Google has never remotely commented on anything of the sort, but neither has it given any sign it's not headed in this direction.

Life After Search: True, Google can't ride the online-advertising wave forever. But online ads are so much better at connecting to customers than print and broadcast -- and at such a lower overall cost -- that it's got at least a year or two left and could get a second wind from the advent of pay per call advertising.

And then what? Google recently invited George Dyson to its buildings, and the scientific historian was surprised at how serious the Googlers were taking the idea of artificial intelligence. "We are not scanning all those books to be read by people," he was reportedly told. "We are scanning them to be read by an AI."

Artificial intelligence? That would make for an ambitious second act. Last summer, Google copped to investing heavily in one area of AI: highly advanced automatic translators that factor in things like idioms that only a human translator can manage today. Tearing down language barriers would do wonders for broadening the market of Internet search, not to mention the new lines of revenue it could break open.

By contrast, Microsoft can look forward to a few more upgrades of Windows and Office, plus growth in areas like the Xbox and security software, where it's recently gained an edge.

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