Does Google even want to win against Microsoft?

Google and Microsoft appear to be mortal enemies, but winning might actually be more painful than just losing gracefully.

Waiting for Google to crush Microsoft to powder? You might be waiting a long time, as The Wall Street Journal's Holman W. Jenkins, Jr. suggests in a compelling but surprising argument.

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Maybe Google and Microsoft don't really want to beat each other up.

Sure, Google has Google Apps to wave in front of Microsoft's face when it gets too serious with Bing, and Microsoft keeps pressing on its online-ad business to keep Google from thinking too hard about Chrome OS. But is Jenkins right?

Do these two rivals really want to upset their cozy corners of dominance in order to take on profit margin-busting forays into their competitors' markets?

Jenkins writes:

Microsoft and Google...have the power to damage each other, and are better off if they don't. They spend a lot of money on deterrence....Even more than the Cold War superpowers, they have every incentive quietly to agree to be deterred without investing quite so much on an arms race....

Their little secret is that neither Google nor Microsoft really have an interest in challenging each other's core franchises, if it means risk to their own. Their posturing is primarily defensive--fear of loss is greater than hope of gain.

And both companies by now have a well-earned reputation for being willing to invest large sums simply to threaten the profits of companies that potentially threaten theirs.

This doesn't mean that the two aren't actually trying to hurt each other. They are. This isn't the World Wrestling Federation, with simulated attacks meant to impress the crowd but not damage the fighters.

(The) little secret is that neither Google nor Microsoft really have an interest in challenging each other's core franchises, if it means risk to their own.

But I think Jenkins is right: every move either takes against the other is almost certainly meant to warn more than draw serious blood.

The real opportunities for both companies are not in carving up past markets, but in discovering and profiting from new ones. I can't see Google, for example, wasting much time trying to displace Microsoft Office, because there simply isn't much of an advertising market there, and it's unlikely that Google is going to more efficiently reap what Microsoft has sowed.

Instead, Google is investing in dramatically redefining collaboration and e-mail with Wave, which promises to put Google, not Microsoft, in control of the future "office productivity" market.

Yes, it's exciting to watch the two take swipes at each other. But I wonder, along with Jenkins, if we're seeing feints rather than kidney punches.

Follow me on Twitter @mjasay.

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