At what point should Microsoft get scared?

A programmer was talking in a tech support forum about some GMail problem he had that was linked to YouTube. "I haven't tried it in Chrome", he said.
Written by Rupert Goodwins, Contributor

A programmer was talking in a tech support forum about some GMail problem he had that was linked to YouTube. "I haven't tried it in Chrome", he said. "That's a little too much Google for me."

That comment has a certain force. I was reminded of it when I watched Eric Schmidt give a bravura performance at the Gartner Symposium/ITxpo Orlando 2009.

It started well, with some subtle but cutting digs at his Gartner interlocutor: when asked his prediction of non-advertising Google revenue three years time to compare with Gartner's projected nine percent, he said "We don't do that calculation. It's what finance people do, and it's not very interesting." Laughter.

But there wasn't much laughter during the next 45 minutes, as he elucidated a frighteningly coherent view of how the future was going to go Google's way - and not just bits of the future, the whole lot. From enterprise to consumer, from cloud to mobile, everything was included.

We might, if we're good, be left some vertical market stuff - Google only likes dealing with things that a few hundred million people can use - but that's because the big G can't be bothered. Everything was in the mix; Wave, ChromeOS, Chrome, Google Apps, HTML 5, GMail - oh, was GMail high on the list - Android, even YouTube. Cross-enterprise searching, anyone, where you find out what's going on inside your circle of trust? Employee monitoring? Seamless cloud apps on all platforms? Security that works without firewalls?

One of his predictions was that by next year, there will be netbooks running cloud services within the enterprise that will be good enough to replace the run-of-the-mill enterprise PC "but at a fifth the cost", because cheap hardware was that good. It all joined up. It all made sense.

I digested that prediction while reflecting on the fact that I was watching Schmidt in high resolution via YouTube within Chrome under Linux, on a machine that was simultaneously running all my social networking, chat and other clients, all my home entertainment requirements, all my editing and content creation faffery... and the only part of it that was Microsoft was the copy of XP I run under VirtualBox in order to get to my corporate email. That's only because Microsoft chose to cripple Outlook Web Access when it's not running under IE. Guess how that makes me feel.

(Ah yes, Outlook. Exchange. Schmidt talked on stage about the revelation he'd had about calendaring being at the heart of enterprise: when I use Exchange's calendaring, the revelation I get is that I hope to the highest powers in the cosmos that someone fixes it soon.)

I had a Google Doc open for a project I'm sharing with five pals. I had Google Maps open. I had an Android phone snoozing by the side of the keyboard. In short, I had too much Google in my life. And when ChromeOS comes along and makes my netbook work better (and it will), the amount of non-Googleage will shrink still further, because Google works and is nice to use and I am weak in the face of working code that's nice to use. The fact that everything Schmidt was saying was patently coming true in front of my eyes didn't help.

Now, imagine Ballmer trying to put on an equivalent 45 minute performance where he seamlessly merges the Microsoft vision for mobile (can you even tell me what that is?), cloud (ditto), netbooks (ditto), security (ditto). And how much? Those MS calculations that running free services and software cost more than proprietary solutions - well, they're hard to swallow when you're paying for everything yourself.

Just to put the seal on it, Schmidt mentioned how many Google salesmen were going into the enterprise pushing GMail - priced not for free, because they found that enterprise was happy to pay for service, when they got it. And when the sales pitch didn't work because things were missing, they went back to the Googleplex and fixed them, or worked around them, or found reasons why those missing things didn't need to be there at all. Then they went back, and tried again.

So when I read that Los Angeles City Council is moving from Groupwise to GMail and Google Apps - at a cost of $7.25 million, paid for partially by a legal settlement Microsoft had to make for overcharging - and think that this is the sort of deal Microsoft should be winning, I wonder what Ballmer makes of Schmidt's grand plan, and whether I will hear any cogent response this year, or next year when the ChromeOS netbooks are in the fray, or the year after that when the migration from Exchange becomes too big to ignore.

When, in short, will Microsoft get scared enough to do something that might make a difference? Because after 45 minutes of Schmidt's world domination plan, I was plenty scared myself.

And I like Google.

Editorial standards