Bill Gates is on a mission to build a Google killer. What got him so riled? The darling of search is moving into software—and that’s Microsoft’s turf.
Microsoft was already months into A massive project aimed at taking down Google when the truth began to dawn on Bill Gates. It was December 2003. He was poking around on the Google company website and came across a help-wanted page with descriptions of all the open jobs at Google. Why, he wondered, were the qualifications for so many of them identical to Microsoft job specs? Google was a web search business, yet here on the screen were postings for engineers with backgrounds that had nothing to do with search and everything to do with Microsoft’s core business—people trained in things like operating-system design, compiler optimization, and distributed-systems architecture. Gates wondered whether Microsoft might be facing much more than a war in search. An e-mail he sent to a handful of execs that day said, in effect, “We have to watch these guys. It looks like they are building something to compete with us.”
He sure got that right. Today Google isn’t just a hugely successful search engine; it has morphed into a software company and is emerging as a major threat to Microsoft’s dominance. You can use Google software with any Internet browser to search the web and your desktop for just about anything; send and store up to two gigabytes of e-mail via Gmail (Hotmail, Microsoft’s rival free e-mail service, offers 250 megabytes, a fraction of that); manage, edit, and send digital photographs using Google’s Picasa software, easily the best PC photo software out there; and, through Google’s Blogger, create, post online, and print formatted documents—all without applications from Microsoft.
While Google was launching those products—all of them free—Microsoft has been trying in vain to catch up in search. It has spent about $150 million on its search project, code-named Underdog. But Google and lately Yahoo keep leaping ahead with innovations like local-area search complete with maps and satellite photos, ways to search inside a video file, and search designed for cellphones.
Simply put, Google has become a new kind of foe, and that’s what has Gates so riled. It has combined software innovation with a brand-new Internet business model—and it wounds Gates’ pride that he didn’t get there first. Since Google doesn’t sell its search products (it makes its money from the ads that accompany its search results), Microsoft can’t muscle it out of the marketplace the way it did rivals like Netscape.