June 17, 2009

Google’s Apps Surround Search, Pulling a Reverse Microsoft

As the discussions around Bing continue, I found myself often thinking of how the product would need to not just be marginally better than Google search for me to switch, but dramatically better - not due to an inherent bias on my part, but because of how the landscape has changed. Under our nose in the last decade, Google has grown to represent much more than just a search engine – essentially recreating the major pieces of the operating system experience around their crown jewel, with a large number of hooks that have me choosing their search over others, even if competitors are “good enough”. And the more I think about it, Google has pulled a “reverse Microsoft”, not so much in an anti-competitive sense, but in terms of how they have created customer lock-in.

Microsoft is in an unenviable position many times when it comes to the Web. Nearly two decades of underperformance on search, portals and Internet access have the Redmond giant constantly changing its approach as it tries to fend off more nimble competitors. But as we all know, it ripped its way into the Web discussion in the mid to late 1990s through leveraging its operating system monopoly to push Internet Explorer to the #1 position against Netscape, adding onto its leading position in office productivity suites, and yes, the OS.

Microsoft customers could be seen climbing the ladder of Microsoft lock-in from the bottom up – starting with the operating system, adding the office suite, the e-mail application, the Web browser, and sometimes, the MSN portal or search engine.

In contrast, Google started with its search engine and has worked the other direction – adding a formidable e-mail option in Gmail, an office suite with Google Docs, a Web browser with Chrome, a portal with iGoogle, and many utilities designed to make us come to Google as our information engine – from Google Maps and Earth to Google Reader.

Meanwhile, as Microsoft came under fire for bundling its browser as part of the operating system and forcing OEMs to preload it and not its competition, Google went out and signed deals making its engine the predetermined default in practically all non Internet Explorer browsers – including Mozilla’s Firefox and Apple’s Safari browser, making it a formidable barrier for other engines, Microsoft's included, to gain share. And as we discussed previously, late last year, in the debate on mobile phones and Web browsers, where I argued that the new tactics will be “all about the hooks”, there’s no question that Apple’s iPhone, combined with Google’s Android platform, will extend the share of Google’s engine even further on the mobile Web.

So far, Google has escaped serious drama in the world of anti-trust, a benefit its competitor from Redmond does not enjoy. As Microsoft is forced to contend with pulling its browser from the operating system in Europe, or seeing flack for Bing taking over as the default search engine in Internet Explorer 6, Google continues to make deals that make its kingpin position even more secure, and add new applications that make me even less likely to leave the site. After all, if I switched to Bing, I would still have no intent to ditch Google Reader. Microsoft has never really competed with Google Maps, making that a no brainer, and though Google’s office suite online isn’t the best or biggest, arguably, at least when I am using Microsoft’s office suite, I am doing it offline, away from the real battlefield of tomorrow.

When Google first debuted and we were measuring its success in the speed of response, or simply by the number of pages in its index, I don’t think we foresaw how it would turn one of the most aggressive tech monolith’s advantages on its head. While I recognize Google Search might not be dramatically better than Bing or even Yahoo! Search at this point, once you take the brand names away, it’s the hooks that have got me.