Chrome vs. Bing vs. You and Me

The battle between Microsoft and Google entered a new phase last week with the announcement of Google’s Chrome Operating System — a direct attack on Microsoft Windows.

This isn’t the first salvo in a war that has already seen Google lob its Chrome Web browser against Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, Google pit its Android smart-phone operating system against Microsoft’s Windows Mobile, and Microsoft, in turn, aim its new search technology, Bing, against Google’s very heart — the Google search engine.

This is all heady stuff and good for lots of press, but in the end none of this is likely to make a real difference for either company or, indeed, for consumers. It’s just noise — a form of mutually assured destruction intended to keep each company in check.

Microsoft makes most of its money from two products, Microsoft Windows and Microsoft Office. Nearly everything else it makes loses money, sometimes deliberately. Google makes most of its money from selling Internet ads next to search results. Nearly everything else it does loses money, too.

Neither company really cares because both make so much from their core products that it simply doesn’t matter. But companies, like people, strive and dream and in this case both dream, at least sometimes, of destroying the other. Only they can’t — or won’t — do it in the end, because it is against the interests of either company to do so.

The vast majority of Google searches are, of course, done on PCs running Microsoft Windows and Internet Explorer. It is not in Google’s real interest to displace these products, which have facilitated so much of its success. Chrome products are given away, so they bring in no revenue for Google, and they don’t even provide a better search or advertising experience for their users, the company admits. So why does Google even bother?

To keep Microsoft on its toes.

What Google’s chief executive, Eric Schmidt, has to fear more than anything else is that he’ll awake one day to learn that the Google search engine suddenly doesn’t work on any Windows computers: something happened overnight and what worked yesterday doesn’t work today. It would have to be an act of deliberate sabotage on Microsoft’s part and blatantly illegal, but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen. Microsoft would claim ignorance and innocence and take days, weeks or months to reverse the effect, during which time Google would have lost billions.

So Google Chrome and Chrome OS and Android are all intended to keep Microsoft on the defensive and less likely to push its own Big Red Button.

This makes even more sense given the recent advent of Microsoft’s Bing search technology, which performs precisely the same competitive control function against Google. Bing hasn’t a hope of toppling Google as the premier search engine and Microsoft knows it. To date, Bing’s success has actually been at the expense of Google’s competitors, not Google itself.

But thanks to Microsoft’s deep pockets and fierce screwball reputation, Bing has already accomplished its main purpose: reminding Google executives who they’re messing with.

It’s not as if these companies are gearing up to produce automobiles. The engineering teams for any of these products are, at most, 20 to 30 people — immaterial for Microsoft, which has 90,000 or so employees, and Google, which has 20,000. Nor are all of Google’s products even guaranteed to ship, being as they are in that semi-solid technical state called beta test and subject to cancellation on a whim.

Yes, Google would love to get a toehold in the netbook and smart-phone markets, especially at Microsoft’s expense. The Chrome OS and Android are both ideal for pushing Google’s net-centric view of computing. But the company worries far more about protecting its current cash cow — search — and says as much when it is unwilling to claim that Android and the Chrome OS will be better for Web-based applications than the platforms they are intended to supplant, which is nominally Windows.

Bill Gates once told me the company that defeats Microsoft hadn’t been founded yet. That is probably still the case. Remember Microsoft was less than five years old when I.B.M. plucked it from obscurity to provide PC-DOS, with Microsoft eventually turning on Big Blue and driving I.B.M. from the PC business entirely.

Some company with a new idea and no legacy products to defend will eventually arise to clean Microsoft’s clock. Or maybe Microsoft’s market will simply disappear as PC’s are subsumed into cars and mobile phones, possibly leaving Windows behind in the process. Whatever happens, it won’t be Google’s doing because Google is too busy defending its own turf to seriously encroach on Microsoft’s.

And don’t forget Apple, which with the iPod and iPhone has shown an ability to revolutionize markets other companies saw as mature. Microsoft and Google have yet to do something like that.

I wish they would. I wish these companies had more guts, that either would make a true bet-the-company investment in changing the world, but they won’t. Google engineers are allowed to spend 20 percent of their time on new ideas — yet of those thousands of ideas, the company can really invest in only a dozen per year, leading to dissatisfaction and defections as the best nerds leave to pursue their dreams.

Maybe they’ll leave for the startup that finally topples Microsoft ... or Google. But until then these companies will posture, spend a little money on research and development, and keep each other in check, while reporters and publications pretend that it matters.

Robert X. Cringely, the author of the blog I, Cringely.