Battle Royale: Microsoft vs. Google
Similar to the famous note in 1897 in which Mark Twain pointed out that the reports of his death were an exaggeration, I can't help but think that reports of the demise of Microsoft's ( MSFT) Windows may be just a bit premature as well. There is a part of me that cheers the sentiment. I mean, who among us hasn't prayed to the Vista gods that whatever was happening to our computers would stop happening so we could get on with our work? And of course, were it not for Microsoft Windows, Symantec ( SYMC), the maker of Norton, McAfee ( MFE) and several other antivirus providers would be out of business. But personal sentiment aside, it is difficult for me to believe that Steve Ballmer is staying awake at night worrying about Google's ( GOOG) recent announcement of the upcoming Chrome operating system.
Doing a search on Google (hmmm) for "Microsoft Killer," you will get thousands of hits related to this newly announced software. In the hyperbole that we have all come to love when talking tech, it appears the Chrome OS will not only be another tool available to Internet users, but will in some way finally relegate Microsoft to a more humble place in the corporate community as Google finally does what no other operating system has been able to do. David will finally beat Goliath. Of course, the problem with this David and Goliath story is that it isn't exactly David and Goliath. It's more like, "Clash of the Titans." Google CEO Eric Schmidt has the great advantage of public sentiment regarding support for the anti-Windows. Schmidt also has the advantage -- or disadvantage -- of a career-long obsession with pounding Microsoft.
In the 1990s, as part of Sun Microsystems ( JAVA) and then Novell ( NOVL), Schmidt had the frustration of seeing again and again how the sheer marketing power of Windows kept competitors out of the running. More recently, Schmidt befriended competitor Jerry Yang, then CEO of Yahoo! ( YHOO), in determining how to keep Microsoft from winning a hostile takeover attempt. So is this really an effort to bring greater versatility to the marketplace? Perhaps. But it seems me to be more of a personal issue between Schmidt and Ballmer. Actually, it seems to be a personal issue of Schmidt's. I'm not sure Ballmer actually cares that much. And this is what makes this issue an example of our tendency to lose sight of the role of the individual CEO in the corporate environment. For example, we talk about the missteps of Bank of America ( BAC) when what we actually mean are mistakes made by CEO Ken Lewis. We talk about the excesses of American International Group ( AIG) when we should be talking about the oversight of Maurice Greenberg. And now we talk about Google's ambition when perhaps we should more specifically focus on Schmidt. As investors and citizens that share space with these corporations, we want strong chief executives that can provide the vision and management necessary for success. At the same time, when corporate decisions seem out of place or somehow inconsistent with a company's core competence, more often than not it is also the CEO that has something to prove. Google's strength is in search and online advertising. In fact, Google is so strong in these areas that regulators are concerned that Google is becoming another Microsoft in terms of monopolizing the playing field. And while diversification itself is a sound business strategy, the ability to pull off such an ambitious plan as the Chrome OS is questionable at best. Yes, Schmidt has had some success with his Android OS, which powers the G1 (Google) phones and other personal digital assistant devices. But that system makes sense because of the consumer desire to be able to search with their handheld devices. So, forgive me if I'm not quite ready to attend the Microsoft memorial service, nor am I ready to sell my house and load up on Google stock because of the Chrome OS. In fact, I can't help but think that it might be Google that needs some real competition. Microsoft's effort to cut into the search marketplace may well be as questionable as Google's attempt at operating systems. (I haven't "Bing-ed" anything while writing this column, although I have "Googled.") And meanwhile the battle of the titans rages on. It makes for interesting drama, but at this point, that's all it is.