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Whine from Google-Microsoft

CNET's Charles Cooper says the latest public spat between these two tech goliaths diverts attention from the core--and more serious--dispute between them.

Who says geeks lack a sense of humor? If you want a few yuks, consider the latest dust-up between Microsoft and Google.

For the record, I have no idea whether Google acted improperly by hiring away former Microsoft Vice President Kai-Fu Lee. Same goes for whether there's anything to Google's complaint about Microsoft scaring employees into not doing the same. (Late Thursday a Superior Court judge in Seattle granted Microsoft's request for a temporary restraining order to stop Lee from working at the new job until the court determines whether his hiring was lawful.)

What I do know is that both companies are so full of it that you have to wonder how these guys manage to keep a straight face.

Considering the horseradish each side is slinging, that's no inconsiderable effort. The outraged hurt voiced by Microsoft and Google alike would lead one to assume that the other is the most heinous no-goodnik.

Of course it's all balderdash. This is just part of the escalating rivalry between these two Internet giants. Fact is that Microsoft is just as paranoid about Google as Google is paranoid about Microsoft.

And for good reason.

Remember how crazy Microsoft became in the mid-1990s about Netscape? Everyone from Bill Gates on down understood that Netscape's browser threatened to push aside the Windows operating system as an application development platform. That was an existential battle that brought out the best--and the worst--in Microsoft, which ultimately won the day.

Google presents a challenge of a different sort--though one that's potentially as unnerving. Some estimate that Google controls more than half the search market. But it's not the quotidian goings-on at Google that has Microsoft on edge.

Both companies are so full of it that you have to wonder how these guys manage to keep a straight face.

With the computing world moving more toward the Web, Google's become an indispensable tool for tens of millions of people. And the numbers are only going to increase. (When your company name enters the popular lexicon as a verb, it's a singular achievement.) What's more, the company keeps adding doodads as part of its perennial beta-testing of new products.

Google's execs aren't dropping hints, but what's to limit their ambition? In its recently concluded quarter, the company pulled in net income of $342.8 million on $1.38 billion in sales. There's money to fund Google's wildest dreams. Trust me, Microsoft's not so cavalier to dismiss recurring rumors about Google's plans for an operating system. Even if Google doesn't want to go that far, there's still the specter of how it might take center stage in what Tim O'Reilly describes as an "emergent Internet operating system" formed from small pieces to create a platform for a new generation of applications. In other words, Netscape redux.

Now that it's sufficiently scared the bejesus out of Microsoft, Google's got its own doomsday scenario to contemplate. Google may be hiring lots of smart engineers, but Microsoft has the company beat when it comes to experience writing applications for desktops and servers. Microsoft's already moving hard on search, which for now remains Google's bread and butter, and we'll see what else it's got coming out when the Vista version of Windows finally reaches the market next year.

Google also needs to prove it won't buckle under fire the way Netscape did when Microsoft took out the brass knuckles. Whining about Microsoft's "shocking display of hubris" isn't a promising harbinger.

They may be billionaires, but Sergey Brin and Larry Page are pikers in this business. When the heavy artillery starts to fly, the leadership needs to come from CEO Eric Schmidt. But I'm not at all convinced he's got the right stuff. Here's a guy who jumped ship when he couldn't turn around Novell. Earlier, Schmidt was part of an executive team at Sun Microsystems that never could quite figure out how to beat Microsoft.

Sorry, but he's no Bill Gates--and I know Bill Gates.

This is the main event that everyone's dying to see, but wouldn't it be refreshing if both Google and Microsoft cut out the kvetching and let their products do their talking for them? Poaching talent is just part of the game. Now just get on with it, and may the best mega-billion-dollar corporate Goliath win.