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Google: Serious threat or poor spelling?

 Perhaps I’m ignorant, but Google’s attempt to compete with Microsoft is pathetic. Microsoft is far from perfect, but unless some company steps up and takes a real crack at us soon it will be tough to overtake us. That company certainly isn’t Google.

Eric AsideThis was one of my most controversial columns. Many people inside and outside the company believe Google’s approach to web-based services will do to Microsoft what Microsoft did to IBM’s mainframe-based services. I agree with their points about the web changing the world and our legacy businesses (Windows and Office) making it difficult for us to be as agile as Google. However, I respectfully disagree with their conclusion.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m quite impressed with a few things Google has done:

  • They created a dominant Internet search engine.
  • They created a powerful revenue model off a context-driven ad service with the help of two acquisitions.
  • They created an engineer-friendly work environment to attract and retain strong talent.

Eric AsideWe can now add that they (Google) have created a developer-friendly phone and slate platform with cellular operator–friendly pricing.

Those are all great achievements.

However, those accomplishments aren’t worth much in the long run. If Google is lucky, it will remain a successful niche player like Apple. If Google isn’t quite so lucky and resourceful, it will join the ranks of Borland, Netscape, Corel, Digital, and others. Yeah, some of those companies are still in business, but they are shells of the competitors they once were.

They falter, we flourish

The foolishness and short-sightedness of our competitors never stops amazing me, and Google is no exception. It’s almost too easy. Perhaps they think their collective incompetence will lull us into such arrogance, carelessness, and outright laughter that we’ll forget who we are and what we do.

Eric AsideOkay, that was over the top. I wrote this when I felt the pendulum had swung too far in the direction of Google adulation and it was time to push back a bit. By the way, I have friends I admire at Google and other competitors. It’s the business direction of these companies that I question, not their people.

We’re certainly guilty of the arrogance, carelessness, and laughter. I’ll be the first to admit it. But thank goodness we haven’t forgotten who we are and what we do:

  • We empower every person and device with software.
  • We continually improve our products.
  • We continually improve ourselves.

We follow these principles because we care about every customer. We want to change the world.

Failure by design

Given all the success Microsoft has had, you’d think our competitors would follow the same principles, but they don’t. It’s not that they fall short trying; it’s that they specifically choose not to do it.

Most of our competitors stop improving their products. They move on, satisfied with the current version like we mistakenly did with Internet Explorer. That allows us to catch them and beat them by the time we get to our third version. Google is trying to correct this mistake right now. They’ve overemphasized new ideas to the point that their top executives are now telling engineers to pull back on creating new products and refocus on the ones they have.

Most of our competitors also stop improving themselves. We outspend all our rivals by a wide margin in research and development. But as old competitors fall behind, new ones take their place.

In addition, we’ve got a long way to go before we meet our customers’ higher expectations for mature product quality. Lucky for us, while Google’s practices are sound, they aren’t explicitly focusing on quality engineering. Their biggest challenge to us outside of their excellent yet mostly stagnant products is their engineer-friendly work environment. In time, our dedication to continual improvement will beat them in both areas.

Eric AsideWhile Google has incrementally improved their search, ads, browser, and Android OS, they haven’t yet shown they can make revolutionary improvements in customer experience. It took years for Microsoft to move away from developer UIs and feature flood and move toward integrated, delightful, customer experiences. Customer experience is where Apple excels. Google is far behind, while Microsoft has gradually been catching Apple and moving ahead in our newest releases. (Apple zealots can now stare lovingly at their iPhones and reassure themselves by counting their rosary button.)

Smart people, smart clients

But let’s say Google gets its act together and starts continually improving its products and itself. Google has done an excellent job of attracting and retaining strong engineers. They could decide to refocus their efforts on customer value, product quality, integration of services, and multirelease plans. Wouldn’t they be a threat, especially with their fantastic ad platform that practically prints money?

No. At best, Google will be a niche player like Apple. Why? Because of our first principle—which Google, like Apple—has chosen to disregard: “We empower every person and device with software.”

Apple wants to empower only the people and devices they choose. The strategy has its advantages, but it structurally limits their market. Too bad, they’d be a tough competitor otherwise.

Eric AsideI wrote my dissertation on a Mac. I love Apple’s dedication to design and user experience. Over time, dedication to quality experiences, along with quality engineering, has been the growing source of our own success in old and new areas.

Google wants to empower every person with software, but not every device. They’d rather keep the smarts on the server or in generic snippets on the client. It’s the old “network computer and dumb client” story. It’s remarkable how many times this losing strategy has claimed victory over the smart client.

Eric AsideWith Android, Google has moved onto phones and slates. This is great, but they are using these devices as a platform for their ads. Their business model hasn’t changed. They charge operators little or nothing for Android and make their money on the services connection and advertising. I’m not saying that’s evil—I’m saying that’s limited. Google isn’t on devices to make the most of the devices. They are on devices to make the most of their ads. In the end, their subpar customer experience will place them behind their competitors. Wait another few years and you’ll see what I mean.

Microsoft brings the power of software into every person’s office, home, and hands. The closer you can bring that power to people, the more extraordinary and valuable their experience becomes. Google will lose as long as they limit their reach. How badly they lose depends on whether or not they can manage to at least hold onto a few server-based scenarios.

Eric AsideSome might argue that AJAX provides enough smarts for a client, or that Google has been shipping smart clients, like Google Earth (which I love). However, AJAX is limiting, and Google’s software development process, which many consider its strength, is optimized for web delivery. Google would need to make big changes to focus on smart clients, much like the changes Microsoft has already welcomed to focus on web services.

Staying vigilant

Just because Google has doomed themselves, that doesn’t get us off the hook. We have to keep improving ourselves, creating an environment that attracts and retains great people, including Google employees when they abandon ship. We have to keep improving our products and services, providing more compelling value than Google with integrated, exceptional experiences.

We must stay vigilant because some day—perhaps starting now in someone’s garage, perhaps in India or China—there will be a competitor who understands our principles. They won’t have our baggage of legacy code and legacy engineering methods. They will focus on lean, high-quality practices and products, starting small and slowly expanding their influence. It’s happened in every industry, and it can happen to us.

Staying out in front

What’s different is that we have sensed this change in advance. We know the market has matured. We know we must transform our engineering systems and approach in order to produce higher quality products and services that provide more value with greater predictability and efficiency. Our principles of continually improving our products and ourselves are slowly making that transformation a reality. It takes time and patience, but we’re really good at taking the time and being patient.

We know in the end we’ll win. You can be a part of this exciting time. You can dedicate yourself to improving our engineering and our products. You can put quality and customer value first, for everyone on every device.

Change is difficult. There are always those who prefer the status quo, especially when it comes to old habits. But with change comes opportunity, opportunity for you to define and even lead the new status quo. Grab it while clueless competitors like Google are giving us the chance.

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