How Google stole mighty Microsoft’s thunder

Empires always seem invincible just as they are about to crumble. Microsoft was no different. At the start of the decade, the company was dominant. Its software, Windows, ran most of the world’s computers. Windows users were then lured into using its other products — to surf the web, to listen to music, to write documents. Using a computer meant becoming a Microsoft customer.

The company was dominant. But not invincible. Today, Microsoft is openly mocked by Apple in its advertising. Computers have become portholes to the internet. Once there, Google is the brand people know and trust. Microsoft’s products are still used but they are not life-changing.

The past decade in technology is the story of how three companies shaped our online and offline lives. It is the tale of the fall of Microsoft, the rebirth of Apple and the rise of Google. Their competing fortunes and philosophies also point to what the next ten years might have in store.

Microsoft’s problems started in 2000. A US court order said that the company should split in two, its sanction for alleged anti-competitive practices. Though that order was eventually overturned, Microsoft spent the rest of the decade dogged by regulators and lawsuits.

Perhaps distracted by these battles, Microsoft missed the fact that people were migrating online. Slow dial-up connections were replaced by super- fast broadband. The key to getting around the web was search engines, and here Google was at the forefront.

Google set off with an extraordinarily ambitious mission: to organise the world’s information and make it universally useful. Its approach was revolutionary then, but seems the norm now. It was free. It was open. Anyone could use it.

And Google eventually worked out how to make bags of money. It sold advertising alongside search results. Google became a multibillion-dollar company, a verb, a phenomenon.

Apple took a different route. The company had been in the doldrums for years, but in 2001 it launched the iPod. The key to the device was simplicity. It was easy to use and allowed millions to carry around entire record collections. Today public spaces are filled with people plugged into headphones.

The iPod was also beautiful, setting the standard for design and technological innovation. The only device that had a similar impact was Apple’s own iPhone, launched in 2007. Both became the must-have products of the decade.

What does the success of Google and Apple say about the future? Google’s “open” model seems here to stay. This is evidenced by the rise of free social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter. In this new world, our privacy takes a back seat to the constant drive to make information easier to obtain.

Apple is better seen as an anomaly, a tyranny run by the genius of Steve Jobs, its chief executive. Rumours continue that it will release another “game-changing” device early next year — a touchscreen “tablet” mini-computer. The chances are that most of us will want to log on to Google using Apple’s Tablet.

Anyone left stuck in Microsoft’s world may feel they’re settling for second best.

Murad Ahmed, technology reporter of The Times.