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Monday, February 09, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
E-conomy / Paul Andrews
Microsoft's latest assault on the Web search business is just getting under way, but already a familiar elephant may be ambling toward the doorway.
The software giant's announced intention to dominate search its third such quest in recent years is being depicted as a crusade against Google, the default Web search leader. Although Microsoft has stopped short of threatening to cut off Google's air supply, Google's prominence has led Silicon Valley partisans to cast this as an updated version of the mid-1990s Netscape-Microsoft "browser wars."
The comparison quickly breaks down. Browser technology was just a couple of years old, and the Web still known as the World Wide Wait, when Netscape rose to the top. Search has had more than a decade to evolve and although it has plenty of room to grow is a more mature and diverse venue than browser software.
Netscape was a tender year-and-a-half old when Bill Gates delivered his famous "Pearl Harbor Day" Internet speech in December 1995. Although Google has not yet gone public, an event that may happen later this year, it is more than 5 years old and an established enterprise.
Netscape's growth plan directly butted up against Microsoft's core business. Although dubious and unwaveringly vague, Netscape's strategy was to build the browser into the "Windows" of the Internet, obviating the need for an operating system or desktop applications. Netscape waved a red flag at the Redmond bull.
Google has done nothing to indicate a crossover into the Windows or applications business despite pleas by users like myself for a Google-type hard-disk program. Searching a Windows hard drive for a file or topic is a lot harder than "Googling" the Web.
Finally, Netscape just wasn't the innovator and well-run business that Google has proved itself to be. Netscape basically turned out to be a money play, making its founders and early employees rich while demonstrating little ability to extend its business beyond browser software.
Google will undoubtedly exceed Netscape's wealth and make a lot of Googloids multimillionaires. But Google's brain trust has shown consistent creativity in expanding basic searching into a variety of profit-making arenas.
There is one area, however, where Google could face Netscape's fate. If Microsoft chooses to integrate a Windows search with a Web search in a seamless, one-click fashion, the issue of antitrust "tying" once again may rear its pachydermal head.
By all indications, a primary goal of the next version of Windows code-named Longhorn is to help users organize and find stuff on their computer. No long-suffering PC user will quarrel with that (by contrast, Macintosh users have Apple Computer's superior "Sherlock" search tool).
But what if performing a Windows-based search yielded a split-screen of returns: one side consisting of results from your PC, the other side of hits from the Web?
Assuming the searches were as fast, intuitive and useful as a "Google," would you ever really need to go back to your browser and use Google (or Yahoo! or AlltheWeb or whatever) again?
It seems like a slam-dunk proposition for Microsoft hegemony. There are some big catches, however. First, delivering results as well as, or even superior to, Google takes some doing. As flawed as its searches can be, there's a reason Google is the de facto standard.
In addition, were Microsoft to adopt a seamless Windows-Web search strategy and be accused of antitrust, it might be ordered to "open up" the Windows desktop to other search services as well. And that could backfire.
Google might want to start offering a desktop utility of its own. Faced with the option of either Microsoft or Google as the default search provider on your Windows PC, which would you choose? One wonders if that's a question Microsoft wants its customers to have to answer.
Paul Andrews is a freelance technology writer and co-author of "Gates." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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