Is Microsoft a dinosaur to Google's mammal?

Is Microsoft a dinosaur to Google's mammal?

Summary: Google's and Microsoft's very different approaches to computing, and the history behind them, beg the question, is it time for Microsoft to reinvent itself if it wants to avoid becoming the computing equivalent of fossil fuels?


I had a couple of very enlightening conversations with representatives from Microsoft and Google back-to-back on Friday. While our conversations were focused on their educational initiatives, some of which I'll be featuring tomorrow on ZDNet Education, the more interesting aspects of the interviews actually related to their entirely different approaches to the Web, the cloud, and computing in general. These approaches, and the history behind them, beg the question, is it time for Microsoft to reinvent itself if it wants to avoid becoming the computing equivalent of fossil fuels?

I know, the La Brea Tar Pits don't actually contain any dinosaurs...but is it time for a shift in strategy for Microsoft?

I know, the La Brea Tar Pits don't actually contain any dinosaurs...but is it time for a shift in strategy for Microsoft?

Microsoft has been around for a while. It was founded in 1975, the year before I was born, making it truly ancient in computer years. This isn't a bad thing, in and of itself. Experience counts for a lot and, if Windows 7, Windows Server 2008, and Office 2007 (with 2010 on its way) show us anything, it's that Microsoft has learned a lot of lessons and can crank out some pretty impressive desktop productivity software. True, Server 2008 isn't desktop software (unless you count what it can do in terms of Terminal Services and desktop virtualization), but Active Directory and much of its software stack directly support desktop computing environments.

Google, on the other hand, is a relative baby. Founded in 1998, the company was created for, by, and through the Web. As Google's Jeff Keltner told me the other day, the company has built an entire Web-based infrastructure throughout the company. They have a "single way" of thinking about how they do business with a single "back-end and front-end model" that they leverage both internally and externally in the variety of products that grew from their original search business.

If you talk to the folks at Google, Microsoft is shoehorning a dying desktop-centric strategy into a Web-enabled world. Talk to the folks at Microsoft and Google is shoving cloud strategies down the throats of enterprise customers who need far more control than Google Apps can offer.

So who's right? And more importantly, who's right long-term? Right now, it seems clear that they both are. Microsoft has a robust, mature software ecosystem that can manage an enterprise's desktop experiences quite handily. Increasingly, with Live Web Apps, Sharepoint Live, Outlook Live, etc., users can access their documents and messaging in very familiar forms from the Web. The best of both worlds, right?

But what if the desktop really is dead? What if the desktop computing experience will be irrelevant in a year? Two years? What if Google is right? Google doesn't need an ecosystem of integrated products that also integrate with the cloud because all of its services were built from the ground up to work in the cloud. The desktop was not part of Google's core strategy; they're simply able to leverage their massive Web presence and huge data center capabilities to potentially eliminate the need for a desktop for many users. In fact, again according to Keltner, Google now focuses in terms of Apps on how best to satisfy the needs of their customers, rather than replicating what Microsoft can do.

Many of these questions have been asked before:

  • Is the desktop dead?
  • Is the OS dead?
  • Is Microsoft a dinosaur?
  • How many of your users really need Office in all its glory?
  • Can the cloud actually work for the enterprise?

Now, though, as Microsoft pushes hard to keep up in the cloud and maintain its desktop advantage, while Google begins to look like the 1000 pound gorilla taking over the Internet, it seems as though the game might be changing. I think that it's premature to assume that Microsoft will follow the dinosaurs into extinction. Not only did the dinosaurs dominate the earth for millions of years before mammals pulled a slick bit of Darwinism, but as any 2nd-grader will tell you (mine most definitely included), dinosaurs are super cool. So are many of Microsoft's current products.

However (and this is a really big however), Google's products are maturing at an incredible pace, perhaps because they eat their own dogfood and run their own enterprise on Google technologies. Here's the real question you have to ask yourself: Is it worth investing in a Microsoft ecosystem now? Or does Microsoft need to fundamentally shift directions if it hopes to keep attracting new customers in a world that is increasingly turning to the Web for everything it does?

All of Microsoft's Live offerings are a compelling start. My money isn't on either Microsoft or Google; it's on the Web and the company who can leverage web technologies in the way that is most meaningful to users. Right now, the advantage seems to be going to Google, but this is hardly over. Microsoft, as well as plenty of other cloud players like IBM and Amazon will not be conceding any time soon.

Topics: Browser, Google, Hardware, Microsoft, Software

Christopher Dawson

About Christopher Dawson

Chris Dawson is a freelance writer, consultant, and policy advocate with 20 years of experience in education, technology, and the intersection of the two.

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  • Random comments...

    How odd the mixed metaphors sound... "built from the ground up to work in the cloud"...

    The dinosaurs were around for tens of millions of years, and we mammals can barely say the same. The crown of creation can be wrested from the head of the wearer by something unforeseen--like a planet-wide asteroid/comet impact.

    Just as Google eats its own dog food, so does Microsoft, and they've been doing it longer. The competition between these two behemoths is quite interesting to watch, and impossible (for me, at least) to predict the outcome.

    Frankly, I hope both companies come out of the rise of the cloud strong and vital. I'd hate to see one monolithic model of computing take the field. Different emphases can serve slightly different demographics and markets, and we benefit from their continued competition. The need for multi-lingual education is becoming more apparent every day; why should it be any different in dealing with computation resources? Give me familiarity with multiple platforms any day; just keep the "religious fundamentalists" (in the sense of the best platform of choice) and their fanboys away from me.
    • I preferred ...

      ... dinosaur eats own dog food ;-)
    • Ideation is retarded in established companies

      Innovation involves challenging established technologies and products. In any company, established products have all power, and challenging them means challenging things in to which a great deal of money has been placed, while simultaneously challenging established people within the company whose products they are.
      If the challenge fails, its champion dies with it.
      This is why established companies don't evolve.
      Newer companies can always innovate more quickly and get better results. My money is on something other, newer, than either Google or Microsoft.
    • neither of these companies are in as much competition as people think...

      Microsoft isn't making a huge gun at search to
      take down Google, they're shooting for Yahoo.
      Google is pretty much safe in search.

      Google Apps are hardly shooting for MS Office,
      its more shooting at the cloud (which barely
      exists yet) and Google isn't even shooting at
      Windows with its Chromium OS, it's more
      shooting at netbooks (granted, most netbooks
      run windows, but windows does not mostly run on
      netbooks) and other decentralized devices.

      The question isn't who will come out on top,
      Google or Microsoft, the question is who will
      become the next IBM, AT&T or worse... GM,
      first. Until then, they will both reign
  • actually...

    the prorietary model is de dinosaur and the OSS is the mammal.
    M$ and Google are only some species from their family.
    Linux Geek
    • Actually Part Deux

      Go outside and ride your bike for 100 miles...
      tire yourself out with something else other than
      kernel tuning.

      • LOL - nt

      • I guess you never noticed the number of builds...

        That Windows et al have had to go through to get to a "here, use it but don't fiddle with it" state that Microsoft expects you to pay money for.

        Ah well, that and you probably don't notice that unless your fiddling with the likes of Gentoo there's very little if anything that needs a kernel tune in Linux. I'd also suspect (but don't know for sure) that the number of builds are lower per version than for Windows.
        • No I hadn't noticed

          Because that was sarcasm. The 1% of the desktop
          market crowd (LINUX zealots) generally dive
          headlong and live in technical minutiae that
          most businesses and individuals don't care

          I use LINUX (at work). I love it for backend
          services. I'm grateful for its existence since
          it affords places like Google, Amazon, etc.

          Do I want it run it as my *primary* desktop?
          No. I have no interest in fidgeting with WINE
          and more generally seeing half a**ed results
          when trying to run DirectX games (including
          winding up with p*ss poor performance).

          Ubuntu has a very nice LINUX desktop but it
          doesn't change the fact that when I fire up
          software, I'm not interested in hassles.


          PS: I have Ubuntu in a VMWare appliance --
          that's good enough for me.
          • I went ahead and put linux on my recovery partition

            I too love and appreciate linux. But heck, they
            couldn't even put explanations as to what the
            difference was between ext2,3,4,5 ect in the
            install.. I picked ext2 cause it was the only
            one I recognized. apparently its fairly
            obsolete. It would have taken a few minuets to
            put little explanations in the installation...
            but then that would take away from Linux
            elitism and allow us common folk to use it...
            quite sad. Linux is NOT ready for my grandma.
            Want linux to be adopted by everyone? Make it
            ready for my grandma to use. Until then it will
            only be used by the people that use it.
        • "Tune" the Linux kernel?

          The Linux I use must be the Rolls Royce of OSs.... The hood is sealed and it doesn't need "tuning".

          If I ever want it tuned, the "factory" will do it, free of charge. Included in the purchase price.

          It only needs polishing, if I want it to shine. Otherwise it zips along quite nicely without fiddling around with it, and the vendor doesn't hound me incessantly claiming to be verifying the validity and authenticity of ownership or payment. Neither do they care if I drive it on unauthorized roads or let unauthorized drivers use it. No Geniune Disadvantage here!
          Ole Man
        • Singing a different tuning

          [i]Ah well, that and you probably don't notice that unless your fiddling with the likes of Gentoo there's very little if anything that needs a kernel tune in Linux.[/i]

          Not even with Gentoo. It's like carburetors used to be: you [i]could[/i] fiddle with them, but there was never a real need to do it.
          Yagotta B. Kidding
          • Well, it does allow you a whole lot more tinkerability than is usual...

            I guess that was what passed for my point.
    • Google & Microsoft are the same

      Google & Microsoft are different sides of the same coin - they both want to lock you in to their "solutions".

      I am surprised by the number of alleged Linux users who seem to think that the cloud is a great idea!

      With my desktop I can customize the colours, fonts, sounds, etc. Even "evil" Windows lets me use free/Open Source apps if I want to.

      Will I able to do this this with cloud apps?
      Will I have any choice of apps with the cloud or will I have to use what is provided by the supplier?
      Will I have to subscribe to multiple vendors to get the range/quality of apps I desire?
      Will my data be deleted if I am late with a payment?

      Cloud = Complete Lock-in Of User Data

  • The world is going to end

    When? Well, no clue. 2012? 3500? Beats me, eventually
    it will. Needless to say such musings are shall we say

    The real discussion should anchor on "What will the
    desktop be replaced by?"

    You see, the reality is, we still want/need a place to
    store our digital photos, our music, etc. Even so,
    people haven't answered the fundamental question just

    I keep seeing lots of bloggers broach this topic but
    as of yet, I haven't seen any meaningful discourse as
    to where we're going after the desktop.
    • That is EASY. We are headed to web applications and web desktops and remote


      So, your OS only has a browser, and the ability
      to open a window in which a compete desktop
      runs, or just a single application runs.

      The nice thing about remote desktops and
      applications, is that you can log out, but leave
      the state as-is, and pick up where you left off
      from any other network connected computer.

      Of course, with offline capabilities so you can
      run applications disconnected.
      • Not really.

        There may allways be a need for some web services, but on the whole, most people will be using desktops applications.

        Just like people have allways been saying that by 2010 we will all be buzzing around in our flying cars, there are way too many variables to overcome to make that a reality, or to even come close.
        • Actually...

          Buzzing around in flying cars would be a step forward. Funneling our whole computer experience through a browser would be a step back, so your analogy doesn't work in that respect. But I agree with your main point.
          • Actually, the problem is funneling our computing experience through legacy

            OSes from the last millennium.
          • Actually...

            It wasn't. What it did was empower the enterprise to knock down the stovepipes and respond with agility to competitive pressures.

            We all have to work smarter and more effectively. Desperately hugging boxes is only hanging onto an illusion of power. What you should care about is results, not appearances.