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Innovation

Is Google-Microsoft war just for show?

Bing and Chrome OS represent real competition, not a form of theater. The investments being made in them are small, for now. But if you like them, your cash will go into building those businesses, and change will happen.
Written by Dana Blankenhorn, Inactive

Robert Cringely, one of the best analysts in this business, thinks the Google-Microsoft war is just for show, that it's shadow-boxing, a form of theater.

As evidence he notes that the investments they make in competing products -- Bing in the case of Microsoft, Chrome OS in the case of Google -- are modest in relation to the size of the companies.

He makes two mistakes here in his desire to be provocative:

  1. He equates the size of an initial investment with the intent behind it. Every tech effort starts small, and grows only if its business model works.
  2. He sees Bing and Chrome OS as direct threats to Google search and Windows, when they are in fact efforts to bypass them.

Bing is an example of semantic search. It looks at the content of your question and tries to answer it. This is different from Google's PageRank, which delivers the most popular use of the term you entered on the Web.

Bing is descended from Ask Jeeves, now known as Ask.Com. Ask it a question and you get an answer. Why is there air? It's to blow up basketballs, blow up volleyballs. Ask.com remains a niche player in part because answers like that are best found at Wikipedia.

Bing results, at first, don't look very different from what Ask.Com delivers. But look more closely and just below results related to Bill Cosby's seminal recording you get serious attempts to answer the question. It's a different way of dealing with the query. Compare it to what Google delivers.

The choice between Bing and Google is one between trying to get a question answered and trying to find the most common use of what you typed into the box. These are serious differences worth exploring, and Bing in fact does a good job of competing directly with what Google does, riffing off it and offering a valid alternative.

Everyone thinks Bing relates to a sound, like the sound an old pinball machine makes. I think its heritage goes further back. Bing Crosby was, at heart, a jazz musician. Jazz musicians riff off one another. Bing is riffing off Google.

Chrome OS is an even more direct assault on Windows than Bing is on Google. It focuses on a key weakness in the Microsoft product line, the balance of hardware and software costs once the hardware cost drops below $300.

I used an HP Mini 1000 running Windows during my recent trip to China. It worked, but there were weaknesses.

On a Netbook, Windows feels bloated. It takes time to load, and time to shut down. The experience is beset with added expense -- you need anti-virals, anti-malware, and registry cleanups. Then there's nagware, software from Microsoft and other companies constantly nagging you to get our your credit card and buy it.

Netbooks are a great platform. They're rugged and cheap. But they're nothing without an Internet connection and, to its credit, the first thing a Windows Netbook does on boot-up is seek out open WiFi connections.

Still, it could be better, and what's wrong can be fixed with a new business model. Don't think client hardware, client software and online access. Think instead client, connection and synchronization.

Chrome OS seems designed to link you to Google's cloud services, which would synchronize your data and applications so you have just one copy of everything, and pay for it once. With Windows you pay separately for each box you own -- each desktop, each laptop, each Netbook, each phone. With Chrome OS you can move most of those costs to the cloud, pay them once, and save.

Chrome OS is based on Linux, and designed to work seamlessly with the already-announced Google Android for smart phones competing with the iPhone. There's a lot of competition in both these markets, but there's also great opportunity for Google to change where computing happens, and what it means.

Will this work? Time will tell. But at its heart Chrome OS is a direct challenge to everything computing has been over the last 30 years, everything Microsoft has done since its founding. It may look small now, but it's a direct assault at the center of Microsoft's product line.

So both Bing and Chrome OS represent real competition, not a form of theater. The investments being made in them are small, for now. But if you like them, your cash will go into building those businesses, and change will happen.

Besides, we have barely seen what Apple has to offer. Or IBM.

Competition is a beautiful thing.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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