Google keeps tripping over Microsoft's grave

Google is arguably the world's largest open-source company, placing its business model directly at odds with Microsoft's, with the momentum so far favoring Google.

Matt Asay Contributing Writer
Matt Asay is a veteran technology columnist who has written for CNET, ReadWrite, and other tech media. Asay has also held a variety of executive roles with leading mobile and big data software companies.
Matt Asay
3 min read

Some have described Google as an advertising company. This might have been accurate at one time, but given the sheer breadth of Google's ambition and product mix, it's far too limiting a description.

Google is a search company. It's a cloud company. It's a subscription services company. And, as is becoming increasingly obvious, Google is the world's largest open-source company.

Tim O'Reilly has been telling us this for years, but it wasn't until I read this brilliant Keir Thomas article that I appreciated the clarity of O'Reilly's vision.

As Thomas writes, Google is the antithesis of Microsoft. Where Microsoft is closed, Google is open. Where Microsoft is limiting, Google is expansive. Where Microsoft is desktop, Google is the Web.

Microsoft has a problem, and it's this: Its entire business model is built around discrete computers running discrete applications....

The key thing about online applications [like Google] is that they are platform agnostic....Open source doesn't require licensing fees, and is like a double-jointed Russian gymnast: It's flexible. Really flexible. This puts it in a far better position to provide a platform for the new platform agnostic online world.

Chrome (technically Google Chromium) is open source because it makes no sense for Google to lock-down software to one hardware platform or architecture. The platform no longer matters in the Google universe, and this perhaps is the biggest difference between the Microsoft and Google philosophies. Microsoft needs you to keep you using Windows and an x86 platform.

Google [doesn't] care what computer or platform you use, and is actively encouraging you to be eclectic in your choice. Microsoft's approach is all about restriction. Google's approach is all about freedom.

In short, Google can afford to give away everything that makes Microsoft valuable. Everything. How can Microsoft hope to compete, except by trying to tether the online experience to its legacy desktop?

This is a good strategy...for now. It takes a lot of time for industries to change, and it's very possible that not all enterprise applications will successfully migrate to the cloud, as Dan Woods posits.

As such, enterprises will stick with Microsoft and on-premise deployment of software for many years to come.

But that phase in our industry's history will end. Already, as Chris Nuttall notes in the Financial Times, "the inevitable primacy of the browser and web applications is becoming clear."

Google, creator of some of the best of such Web applications, is the quintessential open-source company. It can afford to open all of its code, even if today it does not, because Google isn't selling code, and it can derive significant benefit from extensions to its online services through open-source development. Open platforms, as venture capitalist Fred Wilson suggests, are the future.

Google, in short, is what open source wants to be when it grows up. It illustrates what a true services company looks like: not support and other old-world services, but instead Web services. Most open-source companies only strive toward this goal. Google has fulfilled it.

The writing is on the wall, and that writing says that Microsoft and its model is dead. Google has killed it. Unless we're careful, however, Microsoft won't be the only casualty. Anyone hoping to monetize software directly is at risk.

Follow me on Twitter @mjasay.