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Source: Financialmail.co.za


Has Microsoft finally met its match? Don't bet on it.

Google is the undisputed leader of the Internet search business, processing more than 200m queries a day on its website. But Microsoft chairman Bill Gates is having none of it and his company has said it will invest big money in beefing up its search technology as it tries to catch Google.

In many respects, Google is to this decade what Netscape Communications was to the last. Like the Web browser market, which Microsoft eventually dominated through tactics that were later found to have violated US antitrust laws, the Seattle-based company has been caught flat-footed and has to catch up to a much smaller rival.

Now Google is reportedly planning a listing that could value the company at up to US$20bn.

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer conceded recently that not aggressively pursuing the search market was a strategic misstep by the company. "That's probably the thing I feel worst about over the past few years - not making our own R&D investment [in search technology]."

Search is a big money-spinner, and it's growing rapidly. Advertisers poured $2bn into search-related advertising last year, and this is expected to grow three-fold in the next few years.

To catch up to Google, and other rivals such as Yahoo (which itself is stepping up its fight with Google), Microsoft has a number of tricks up its sleeve. First, it will strive to improve its search technology. "Customers tell us our search functionality is not what it needs to be," says Microsoft SA business & marketing officer Mike Cathie. Ballmer says he hopes to have at least some of Microsoft's new search technologies in use by this time next year.

Second, Microsoft will court controversy by making search a core component of Longhorn, its next version of Windows, planned for release in 2006. Search will be thoroughly integrated into Longhorn. Users won't need to load a Web page to search the Internet. They will be able to do it from wherever they happen to be in the operating system. Similar integration of the Internet Explorer Web browser into Windows led to the US justice department filing suit against the company.

Longhorn will also feature a new file system, code-named WinFS, which will be based on technology used in Microsoft's SQL Server database software. WinFS should make it much easier to organise and search through large volumes of data.

Microsoft, perhaps worried about attracting further attention from competition authorities, downplays its rivalry with Google.

But there are indications that Google could challenge areas that are far more important to Microsoft than search, such as its Windows franchise.

A report in the Los Angeles Times  last week speculated that just as Microsoft is gearing up to use Windows to help it compete with Google in search, so Google may be preparing an assault on Windows. "Google has been building one of the world's largest supercomputers, reportedly made of more than 100 000 servers, [which] . . . could be put to a variety of uses beyond powering the most popular search engine on the Web," says reporter Chris Gaither.

Already, Google has begun offering Internet users a free e-mail service called Gmail which competes with Microsoft's Hotmail and with Yahoo Mail. It offers users 1 GB of free storage space, whereas its rivals typically offer less than 30 MB. Netscape founder Marc Andreessen is quoted in the LA Times saying he expects Google will increase this to 100 GB/user within the next few years. It could then begin offering operating-system services on the Internet, such as text editors and other tools, thereby eroding the role of Windows in users' lives.

Some commentators have even speculated that a low-cost, Google-branded PC could be in the offing, built using Linux and open-source office productivity tools but with Google's search technology built in.

Garth Wittles, district manager for Verity SA, a company that develops search technology tailored for the corporate market, says Google could succeed in making its website a repository that people use to store their documents, provided it can allay security concerns. "The Google search box will then become the single way people access information, be it on the Internet or their own, personal data."

This should be a big worry for Microsoft, Wittles says, as there is potential for desktop revenues to move to a centralised service on the Internet.

"You never know who your competition will be tomorrow," Cathie admits. "Google could certainly compete with us in a lot of different ways. But they also could choose to stick to their knitting."

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APR. 26,  ISSUE #016
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