This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on October 12, 2007
A recent column by Gregg Easterbrook on ESPN.com about the New England Patriots' cheatingscandal made the point that there is no good reason that the National Football League is preordained to be the most successful, powerful and lucrative sports league in the country. The National Basketball League held that position during the 1980s and early '90s, and baseball held it for the century before that.
Neither holds that position of dominance now, which Easterbrook wrote should make the NFL leaders more worried about the cheating scandal that they seeming wear.
Easterbrook's argument could apply equally well to Google, which now occupies the spot of most powerful and influential technology company a role Microsoft held until very recently.
Microsoft's ongoing slip from its previous position of dominance should offer a cautionary tale for the suits at Google, as well as offering hope for those of us who don't like to see any one corporation control too much of the economy at any one time.
Particularly a segment of the economy like the Internet, nexus of much of the intellectual and artistic activity of our society.
With Google rolling out initiative after initiative to expand a reach that already approaches omnipresence, what was once a feel-good story of a couple of college guys achieving fame and fortune now has folks wondering if it's healthy for the rest of us to have one company providing half of all Internet searches.
Just what is Google doing with all that data it gathers about our searches? Privacy advocates are driven nuts by the idea of Google's software reading our e-mails before splashing content-related text ads on the messages those of us with Google's Gmail receive. Book publishers are worried that Google's Book Search will infringe on their copyrights.
And it's not just Web searches that Google dominates, either. Going to google.com is undoubtedly a major chunk of Google's searches, but increasingly, folks simply use the built-in search panel in their Web browser and Google is the default on several of the popular browsers.
Plus, many businesses buy an off-the-shelf Google search system for their own Web site it's a Web server in a rack-mount case, with Google's search software already installed. When you go to MySpace and do a search, you'll notice that it's "powered by Google."
Fall from grace
Just as in the late 1990s, Microsoft's dominance not only in the operating system sector, but also in office productivity (word processing, spreadsheets, presentation software) and Web browsing, combined with ambitious forays into online multimedia delivery and video gaming made Microsoft a target. Unfortunately for Microsoft, it wasn't just private activists who were fretting about Microsoft's increasing influence over multiple aspects of public life and the economy. The U.S. government and the European Union were also wondering if Microsoft was playing by the rules.
A series of rulings against Microsoft didn't help it's efforts to grow its influence in multiple arenas.
But even more than negative government decisions, I think that Microsoft's influence is waning because of changing market forces (as well as some questionable decisions by Microsoft's management).
Microsoft has sunk billions of dollars into its Xbox video game system, and hasn't seen much return on that investment. Its Xbox 360 is the No. 2 system behind Nintendo's Wii among next-generation consoles, and is probably trailing Sony's Playstation 2 in current sales as well.
While Internet Explorer remains the most popular Web browser, the ability of browsing publishers to steer their users toward preferred sites for online transactions has never amounted to much in real-world results. It was a business plan that never was reflected in reality.
And Microsoft's Windows Media Player may have beaten out the once-mighty Real Player for online streaming, but Apple's iTunes changed the whole online music dynamic. (Nor did Microsoft's much-touted Zune portable digital music player make any kind of impact on the market; Apple's iPod remains the gold standard.)
Like Google, Microsoft was once viewed as a quintessential American success story a couple of Harvard students drop out of school to write a programming language for the ALTAIR kit home computer in the mid-'70s, and struck it rich.
But with success and power come resentment, something Bill Gates has surely figured out.
Microsoft's fall from grace and power may not be a morality play, but it still offers lessons to learn.
Just as the folks behind Firefox set out to be the IE-killer (something they've yet to fully accomplish, despite having carved out a signifant market share), so, now, too, are the brains behind Powerset setting out to be the Google killer.
Armed with new search algorithms licensed from XEROX's Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), Powerset claims to be on the verge of a revolution in search technology. The brains there say they are building the world's first truly functional natural language search engine.
The model has been around for awhile, but has yet to show the ease of use and results that would cause the public to actually use it.
Ideally, in natural language search, you would type in a normal, human question instead of key words. So, if I wanted to know the name of the first novel by Albert Camus, I would type in "What was the first novel written by Camus?"
Currently, with today's search engines, I would type in "Camus first novel" and hope for the best.
(Okay, not the best example, as to be honest I would go to Wikipedia and read his bio, but you get the idea.)
Of course, there have been other attempts to program a natural question search Ask Jeeves comes to mind.
And if they'd worked better than Google or Yahoo, they'd have become dominant.
It's possible that the Powerset folks will produce a search engine that works better than Google and Yahoo, and will make Google tomorrow's Yahoo a once-powerful company trying to reinvent itself.
But it wasn't a generational leap in technology that pushed Google ahead of previous search engine king Yahoo it was simply providing a fuller cataloguing of the 'Net than had been attempted before.
That and clever marketing. Because, truth be told, with the new generation of search software Yahoo has rolled out in the last year, there's precious little qualitative or quantitative difference between running a search on Google and running the same search on Yahoo.
But Google is now the entrenched leader, and Yahoo isn't going to displace Google simply by doing as good a job.
It's like in boxing - to beat the champ, you have to be decidedly better.
But as the tales of Microsoft and Yahoo, and IBM before them, prove, market dominance is also a lot like boxing in that eventually, even the greatest champ grows old and gives way to someone new.
If not Powerset (and they're search engine hasn't been unveiled yet), then someone else.
The only question is when.
© Copyright Jim Trageser
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