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Google competes for the future; Microsoft, the past

Google is using open source and cloud computing to tackle the future of computing while Microsoft seems stymied by its legacy.

Google was born on the Web and is increasingly giving Microsoft fits by forcing the decades-old software giant to compete on Google's terms. Like open source. Like cloud computing.

Microsoft may shore up its fortunes in the short term with a successful Windows 7 launch. But in the long term, its very success with outdated "desktop" products threaten to cede the market to Google.

We'll have all of it, please

It's not really fair to Microsoft. Microsoft is a victim of its own success, needing to cater to its existing clientele with each new release, in true "Innovator's Dilemma" fashion. Hence, Microsoft continues to make a lot of money, but its last two quarters have seen traditional strengths like Windows become a drag on earnings as enterprises spend more money with Google, Red Hat, and others.

Google's lack of legacy frees it to innovate rapidly and broadly, as Genentench CIO Todd Pierce, a Google Apps customer, suggests:

The rate of innovation at Google is - well I mean, the Oracle, SAP and Microsoft product cycle is five years; Google's product cycle is five days. It's incremental. In five days you're not going to be able to cancel your Microsoft Office license, but in five years, you won't have Microsoft Office.

Microsoft, for its part, is so concerned with "backward compatibility"--"Is this product/feature compatible with our ability to continue to monetize our 1980s-style desktop monopoly?"--that it continues to struggle to embrace the Web. CNET blogger Dave Rosenberg points out that Windows 7 should have been Microsoft's launchpad to cloud computing, but isn't.

There are a lot of "should have beens" for Microsoft when it comes to the Web.

Meanwhile, no one is slowing down for Microsoft. Let's stick with cloud computing for a minute. VMware dominates virtualization and has a strong claim on cloud computing, though open-source rivalry from Eucalyptus and VMops threatens to challenge both VMware and Microsoft as they seek to dominate cloud computing.

And then there's Google, which provides an increasingly wide array of cloud-based services to enterprises looking to untether themselves from the desktop. In an interview with CNET News, Google CEO Eric Schmidt argues that "The browser can be both enterprise- and consumer-capable. The architecture is driven from the browser. That is the story of enterprise IT today."

In other words, the desktop is simply the means by which a user loads a browser. It's a gateway. The value is not in the desktop anymore. It's in the browser, which is the new desktop, in terms of real functionality delivered.

Microsoft's big opportunity to stymie the threat from Google and others is SharePoint. Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer has described it as Microsoft's new operating system, but it's in a recent interview with Forrester that he makes this meaningful:

In my own mind I compare (SharePoint) to the PC, the PC started off life as a spreadsheet machine, then became a programming machine, a word processing machine, (SharePoint is) a general purpose infrastructure that connects people to people and people to information....

I think SharePoint is considered a very serious development platform for rapid application development (by IT architects and developers).

SharePoint is Microsoft's best attempt to connect desktop applications like Office with centralized, cloud/cloud-like collaboration and storage. Yes, Microsoft has other initiatives like online Office, but none marries so well its legacy profit centers with future innovation. And, given that SharePoint is already a $1 billion and frenetically growing business, it has momentum that other initiatives don't.

SharePoint, then, may be Microsoft's best hope for marrying its legacy to the future of Web-based computing.

The browser can be both enterprise- and consumer-capable. The architecture is driven from the browser. That is the story of enterprise IT today.
--Google CEO Eric Schmidt

Microsoft needs something like this. It is losing in mobile, and not simply to Apple. Google's Android momentum is almost astounding, with AdMob data pegging Android smartphone penetration in the U.K. at 10 percent, as but one example.

If we assume that mobile will increasingly be the client platform of choice, then we see Google squeezing Microsoft from the top (cloud) and the bottom (client).

In both areas, open source is Google's weapon of choice, and it's one that Microsoft is going to have to figure out quickly if it wants to be a player on the Web. The Web is too big for Microsoft to control it, and the Web is overwhelmingly open source, as Lotus founder Mitch Kapor states:

The accomplishment of open source is that it is the back end of the Web, the invisible part, the part that you don't see as a user.

All of the servers, pretty much, they run Linux as the operating system; they run Apache as the basic Web server on top of which everything else is built. The main languages out of which Web applications are built - whether it's Perl or Python or PHP or any of the other languages - those are all open source languages. So the infrastructure of the Web is open source ... the Web as we know it is completely dependent on open source.

Kapor further suggests that Microsoft's war with open source is over, or should be over: open source has won. It's essential infrastructure now, and hence something that Microsoft needs to embrace, not fight. This isn't about open-source religion. It's about pragmatism. Pragmatism that Microsoft, like anyone else, can embrace.

Google is using the future (open source, cloud) to compete for the future, and its tactics threaten to hit Microsoft in its profit centers like Windows.

Microsoft, however, appears to be mired in its past. Windows 7 looks to be a serious upgrade over its Vista predecessor, but in 10 years time, will we care? Or will we have moved on, forgetting about those quaint days when we used to care about the operating system and applications like Office?

Follow me on Twitter @mjasay.