Why Google Isn't the New Microsoft

  • Share
  • Read Later
Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

A Google employee walks across the campus at Google headquarters on Feb. 2 in Mountain View, Calif.

The European Commission, which is investigating whether Google's search engine violates European antitrust law, received a formal letter of complaint last week from an interested party. The complainant charged Google with "a broadening pattern of conduct aimed at stopping anyone else from creating a competitive alternative." It accused the company of hurting consumers by refusing to open up services like YouTube to other search engines, said its practices were "disconcerting" and "troubling," and called on European officials to step in and clamp down.

The outfit lobbying the EC wasn't some strident consumer-affairs group. It was Microsoft, the proprietor of Bing, the second biggest search engine — and a company that knows thing or two about anticompetitive behavior and its legal repercussions.

After all, in 1998, the U.S. Department of Justice sued Microsoft over its bundling of Internet Explorer with Windows, saying that gave it an unreasonable advantage over other browser makers like Netscape. A judge initially ruled that the software behemoth should be split into two companies; it eventually avoided that fate but agreed to operate under restrictions designed to give its rivals a fighting chance.

Seeing Microsoft play the role of 97-pound weakling shows how things have changed since the '90s, when it was a muscle-bound terror that kicked sand in the faces of other tech companies at will. But it's far from the only player questioning Google's recent behavior. For example, Google Books suffered a massive setback last month when a federal judge rejected a settlement Google had reached with publishers to permit the selling of 12 million scanned e-books as anticompetitive. Three states are reportedly poised to launch antitrust probes. Rumor even has it that the federal government may launch an investigation as soon as it can figure out whether the Justice Department or the Federal Trade Commission should be doing the investigating.

It's true that certain things about Google's position on the Web are reminiscent of the clout Microsoft wielded back when the computing universe revolved around desktop PCs. Google's share of the U.S. search market stands at a daunting 65 percent; most of the rest is taken up by Bing and by Bing-powered results at Yahoo. (In Europe, Google's share is estimated at 85% or more, which may help explain why officials there have a head start on their U.S. counterparts in probing the company.)

If Google weren't absurdly flush with cash from search-engine ads, it couldn't enter new fields willy-nilly — from office suites to next-generation broadband to self-driving cars — without fretting over their immediate profit potential. That's similar to the way that Microsoft's twin cash cows, Windows and Office, have long funded the company's battles on other fronts against less prosperous competitors.

And some of the recent scuttlebutt about Google does involve tactics that sound a tad Microsoftian. Bloomberg Businessweek, for instance, recently reported that the company was obstructing Verizon's plans for phones that run Google's Android operating system but swap out Google's search engine for Bing. If true, that's curious considering that Google reminds the world at every possible opportunity that Android is open-source software that hardware makers can — presumably — customize as they see fit.

Overall, though, Google's current dominance has little of the reign-of-terror feel I associate with Microsoft's, um, heyday. When I did an audit of my Google usage, I found that I use 10 of the company's services every day, and nine others multiple times a week. But I use them because I like them. (Gmail is an occasional exception.) More important, I don't feel trapped. In every instance, solid alternatives from other companies are just a few clicks away — usually at no charge.

That's nothing like the bad old days of Microsoft's übermonopoly over PC operating systems, browsers and office suites. Back then, important applications ran only on Windows, major sites required IE, and the documents that your pals created in Office might or might not open up properly in suites such as WordPerfect and StarOffice. All of that made it tough to opt out of Bill Gates' world even if you preferred not to be part of it.

Again and again, Google has proven that it's not very good at turning its commanding position in search into success elsewhere. It said a service called Wave was the future of communications; so few people bought that idea that Wave died within months. Buzz, its answer to Twitter, hasn't amounted to much. And for all of Google's might, it's clearly been rattled by the rise of Facebook, a site that already matters at least as much to millions of people as any search engine. (Its latest stab at Facebook-style social networking, +1, is too new to judge.)

How things have played out with Microsoft in recent years also gives me hope: its fading power has had less to do with government intervention than with consumer preference. When Mozilla came up with a better browser in Firefox, millions of people dumped Internet Explorer. The arrival of Apple's iPhone led to the collapse of the market for the suddenly antiquated Windows Mobile. Similarly, the iPad was an instant blockbuster even though Microsoft had spent a decade failing to convince the masses that Tablet PCs were the computers of the future.

Consumers, in other words, tend to be pretty good at figuring out what's good for consumers. I trust their take on Google and its competitors more than that of any government agency. And the great democratizing power of the Internet puts them in an excellent position to call the shots.

McCracken blogs about personal technology at Technologizer, which he founded in 2008 after nearly two decades as a tech journalist. On Twitter, he's @harrymccracken. His column, also called Technologizer, appears every Thursday on TIME.com.