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Google envy is alive and well in Redmond

Thought he had grown out of it? No way. Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer's new mantra: "My gestalt is stronger than your gestalt."

The weepy countdown to Bill Gates' last day on the job as a full-timer must be getting to Steve Ballmer. Always full of surprises, the big galoot is at it again.

Eric who? Dan Farber/CNET News.com

In a revealing interview with The Financial Times, Ballmer distanced Microsoft from any criticism that it's lost a step over the years. In fact, he added, why not point fingers at some other software behemoth? (Any guesses who that might be?)

I haven't seen speed out of Google really. I mean, come on. They have one product. It's been the same for five years--and they have Gmail now, but they have one product that makes all their money, and it hasn't changed in five years.

Yes, but as his erstwhile comrade in arms is wont to say, doesn't that speak to the magic of software? Ballmer can try and call out Google for being a one-trick pony. Still that's one heckuva pony. Truth be told, if Microsoft enjoyed that sort of technology prowess in search, I very much doubt Ballmer would have wasted four months wooing a unenthusiastic Jerry Yang.

But what's with the nonstop trash talk from the CEO--especially in the countdown to Gates' upcoming "Going Away Day?" He ought to watch his words. Over the next week, Ballmer is going to be all over the media, reaffirming that Microsoft is finished with its Yahoo crush and as relevant as ever. Inevitably, reporters will pop the "What about Google?" question. And the more Ballmer insists on convincing interlocutors about chinks in Google's armor, the less people will believe him. In the same FT interview, for instance, Ballmer says the following:

I mean, (Google has) a gestalt, but gestalt is gestalt. Let's talk about the reality. The reality is one product makes 98 percent of all of their money, search. Oh, they have two products, AdWords and AdSense. They have two products, both search-based, that make all of their money, and it hasn't changed a lot in five years. I'm not giving them a hard time, but we've got to learn--if you say, what have you learned, we try to learn from people's successes, not from people's gestalt. The gestalt is yet to be proven.

Gestalt? If I didn't know better, I'd be tempted to diagnose this as a severe case of Google envy (which may be the flip side of Microsoft's ongoing search for respect as a technology innovator.)

"We're trained in Silicon Valley to believe that Microsoft steals other peoples' innovations," says Microsoft's Stephen Elop, who replaced the retiring Jeff Raikes as president of the company's Business Division. "We just don't give Microsoft credit. I don't know whether that's because of arrogance or hubris."

I spoke with Elop a few weeks ago. As I reviewed my notes, his comments as a former outsider shed a different light on Ballmer's ongoing eruptions of "Google-itis."

"A lot probably has to do with the fact that Microsoft is in a different geography," said Elop, who did prior stints at Juniper Networks, Adobe Systems, and Macromedia, where he held down senior posts. "We've had a generation of leaders who have had to compete head to head with Microsoft over the years. What's happening now is that we're moving on. We've got 2,500 people in the Valley. Maybe I'm surprised that opinion hasn't evolved yet in the Valley, but it will. Too many things are going on."

Maybe so. I can't predict whether Microsoft will ever be received warmly by Silicon Valley. There's a long history and memories die hard. (Microsoft's emissary to the Valley, Dan'l Lewin, keeps plugging away.) Meanwhile, the best way to put the relationship on a more solid footing is to continue to open up and prove Microsoft can build great technology, not just because management is "persistent." (Note to the inner sanctum at Redmond: You can remain obsessed with Google. But try not to let on so much. It's just bad form.)