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Microsoft's biggest threat: Google or open source? Or both?

Microsoft is under attack. It has no idea how to respond.

Glyn Moody, ever insightful and provocative, states clearly in a recent article just what Microsoft is up against:

What is the greatest threat to Microsoft's dominance: Google Inc. or open source? The answer is both, especially when they're working together.

Obvious, right? Well, no. Not exactly. What isn't so obvious, and which Glyn teases out to good effect, is just how clever Google has been about its use of open-source software. I have never connected the dots to Google's open-source arsenal as Glyn has. Nor had I given full credence to just how dependent Google is upon open source. Here's a very small taste:

"[Google is] an example of a company that literally couldn't have existed in the same form pre-Linux or pre-open source," says Jim Zemlin, executive director of The Linux Foundation -- the organization that pays Linus Torvalds to work on the Linux kernel. "If they had to rely on Microsoft or Sun, not only would it have been too expensive, they could not have done the modifications necessary to create their services."

The last point is confirmed by Google's Open Source Programs Manager Chris DiBona, who joined the company in August 2004 to oversee and coordinate its open source activities: "The thing about open source [is], it's kind of like it's yours. Considering that Google does an insane amount of software development, if we had to have some of the restrictions that heavily proprietary [code] would present us, we couldn't develop at the speed that we do."

Suddenly, Google looks like much more of an open-source "good guy" than I would have credited it before. And much sooner than Microsoft could have expected, the one-two Google/open source punch to the Microsoft kidney is hurting Microsoft. Badly.

No, it's not showing up in Microsoft's earning statements. Not yet. Microsoft has more cash and industry dominance than Rockefeller could have dreamed of having. But based on how Microsoft has been responding to both Google and open source, it's not hard to infer the kinds of conversations that ring through the Redmond campus on a regular basis.

Here's a company that delivers services via the Internet (Google). Here's a development and distribution trend that is free, high quality, and takes on an amorphous shape that can't be effectively squelched simply by beating any particular vendor (open source). Together it makes for a highly potent competitive weapon against Microsoft's fleshy Achilles heel.

Glyn's article is forcing me to rethink my feelings about Google, Web 2.0, and open source. Just in time for the new year.