Microsoft’s Google obsession: a symptom of a deeper problem

ReadWrite has an interesting piece triggered by the announcement that Google has reached a settlement with the Federal Trade Commission which avoids the full-on anti-trust suit for which Microsoft (and some others) had been lobbying.

Microsoft had a pretty lousy year in 2012, putting out a string of big products – Windows 8, Windows Phone 8 and the Surface tablet – that all turned out to be be disappointing.

But those pale in comparison to what may be the biggest disappointment in Microsoft’s history — its failure to convince antitrust regulators to take action against Google.

After a 19-month investigation and despite much prodding from Microsoft, the Federal Trade Commission has reached a settlement with Google that basically amounts to a slap on the wrist.This is a crushing blow to Microsoft, which has spent millions of dollars on lobbyists and phony grassroots groups over the past several years hoping to land Google in hot water.

Indeed, Microsoft’s obsession with Google doesn’t just border on crazy. It is crazy, and not just a little tiny bit crazy but full-blown, bunny-boiling, Ahab-versus-the-whale nutso.

Yep. One way of interpreting this obsession is that it’s a way of avoiding Microsoft’s central problem — that it isn’t really innovating. (Some people say that it’s never really been an innovator, in the sense that it simply bought innovative companies and incorporated their creations into its own product portfolio.) What’s certainly true is that Microsoft has spent the past 10 years missing out on many of the important trends in the industry (cloud computing, social networking, smartphones, multimedia). In search and mapping its efforts have been respectable but haven’t gained much traction. Only in the XBox3 gaming area has it really looked like an industrial leader. And in its core area — operating systems — it managed one Olympic-class screw-up: Vista.

The intriguing question is how can a rich company stuffed with clever people drop so many balls? One explanation is that it’s just a case of the bureaucratic sclerosis that afflicts all large organisations. An alternative explanation puts it down to lack of technical leadership. Whatever one thinks of Bill Gates, he was a formidable techie who had the respect of many of the geeks who worked for Microsoft in its glory days. But Steve Ballmer, his successor as CEO, is not that kind of guy. He can, perhaps, earn the respect of sales and marketing folks, because, in the end, he’s their kind of guy. To geeks, though, he just looks like another suit — a noisy and belligerent suit, perhaps, but ultimately still an embodiment of The Man.