Thursday, October 1, 2009

Locked in Battle - Microsoft, Apple, and Google

Nobody can have missed the animosity and confrontation between Google and Microsoft. Fierce competition is a good thing but I am somewhat surprised by the sustained hostility and fervor. Apple is certainly also a player and competes with both Google and Microsoft in different segments but there is just not the same kind of hostile energy when Apple is involved.

Microsoft has a huge lead in the operating system market. Google is moving into this market and is in a position to finally bring Linux to the masses. However, the primary objective is surely not to directly challenge Microsoft but rather to develop a niche and chip away the impression that Microsoft owns the operating system market. More diversity in the operating system market will certainly benefit the smaller players and not by proportional measures - the gains for smaller players will accelerate as the market is changing. Microsoft will surely remain the leader, by far, for foreseeable future but Apple's OS X and Google's forthcoming Chrome is an attempt to change the dynamic of the market by breaking what has appeared to be a Microsoft monopoly - it is not a bad game plan.

Microsoft is challenging Google in the search market and Bing is a really good effort but it lacks an edge compared with Google and the core functionality - search - is, at best, comparable to Google. Currently, there is simply not enough incentive for users to abandon Google for Bing. But Microsoft will continue to challenge Google and they have time to work on the product.

The cell phone market and portable music player (iPod) markets are equally interesting. Google's Android platform is gaining traction and it will soon appear on more phones. Microsoft Mobile is far behind. Palm and RIMs Blackberry are fading. The iPhone is such a strong concept that it will surely continue to gain in the high-end segment of the market. Apple has managed to create a community driven ecosystem in the apps market and iTunes remains in a strong position in digital music sales - it's a concept that is very difficult to copy even if the competitors will eventually catch up and even surpass the iPhone itself. Microsoft's attempt to challenge the iPod with the Zune is so far pretty far from being a seriously threat.

On the application market is Microsoft's flagship - the Office Suite - under attack from both free software with similar capabilities (foremost OpenOffice) and web based applications such as Google Apps. The latter threat is more serious because it's an attempt to change the fundamentals - from local applications to web based applications. The web based applications have not caught up yet but they're making headway and key functionality such as offline capabilities are slowly emerging. This is a fundamental threat to Microsoft and this is the wider implication of the fight in the browser market. Just like with the operating system market, the primary objective of Microsoft's competition is to defeat the dominance and change the market.

The three companies are big enough to stay in the game for a long time so it will be a long battle. It may not only prove to be a good fight and drive innovation through competition but increased friction in the three areas (search, operating systems and web applications, and hand-held devices) may accelerate the development further and create ripple effects.