This is a moment of transition. Microsoft enjoys the incumbent’s advantage on PC operating systems. But Google is challenging on Office software.
The thin edge of the wedge was Google’s emergence as the search portal. Google search so came to dominate my Internet activity that it eclipsed Microsoft’s Internet Explorer and this opened the way for Firefox, Microsoft’s competitor. Google’s Gmail replaced Microsoft’s Outlook. With Excel and Word alternatives, Google was suddenly in the Office game.
Google took this position not a moment too soon. Microsoft Office 2007 is now for sale and consumers like me must now decide: do I complete my migration away from Microsoft or do I "reup" for the new Office 2007 suite? Needless to say, once I have paid the $680 for Microsoft’s Office, I’ll be inclined to stay put. The time for the Google god to step forward is now.
It looks as if the decision turns on presentation software. I don’t like Powerpoint. It is clumsy and dangerous, sometimes vaporizing slides minutes before showtime. The trouble is that Google does not have credible alternative. (Don’t tell me that Thumbstack is any kind of alternative.) Nor does anyone in the PC universe, not so long as we all stand in awe of Apple’s Keynote, the new defacto standard.
The Gods contest but strangely. From a strategic point of view, presentation software looks the battle on which the war depends. To win the day, Google needs something remarkable here. In a perfect world, the Google presentation software would be to Microsoft Powerpoint what Gmail was to Outlook: astonishingly better, enormously problem solving.
How about Microsoft? Did it seize Office 2007 to redesign Powerpoint so well that Google would be shut out, or forced to play catch up? Recently, David Pogue said, "no."
In the … slide-show program PowerPoint, in contrast, there’s not much new apart from the Office-wide improvements.
What can the gods be thinking?
Whether I persevere with my prison break or merely, meekly reup for Office will depend, I think, on how I feel about these two brands.
I first heard about personal computers, software and Internet in the early 1980s at the computer lab at the University of Cambridge. This little world was buzzing at the prospect of…well, we weren’t quite sure. The ability to create, organize, disseminate information seemed the least of it. The new movement of data as knowledge as understanding as communication…this seemed to promise a Bernoulli effect. Surely, the worlds we cared about would lift off, spin, tilt, glide, and come to earth again unpredictably. This technology would have big, structural effects, that much was clear, even if the effects themselves were impossible to imagine.
That Cambridge buzz was kept alive for me by Stewart Brand’s The Whole Earth Catalog. These was fascinating reading, a little compulsive, actually, as if a Sears catalog was actually giving a glimpse of the world ten years out. Much of it was too Californian for me. Whenever I am asked to join hands, sing Kumbaya, and contemplate a world in which all men are brothers, well, I just want to take a swing at someone. In my experience, utopian visions are as coercive as the worlds they would supplant…except now we have to be grateful about it.
So, unlike the likes of Mr. Brand, I did not see the computer revolution as an opportunity for the installation of certain political ideals. But I did feel certain the world would have to be more interesting.
Google is a partner here. That’s ultimately what search is, an opportunity to discover the things in the world that make the world more interesting. The Google motto "don’t be evil" is ok, but merely that. It ought to have been "don’t be dimming or diminishing." No, come to think of it, it ought to have been "search, not destroy."
Dim and destroy, that’s the Microsoft thing. I came to the brand in the 1990s, grateful to have their brand companionship as I made my way through the strange land of computers and software. It’s taken Microsoft something like a decade to beat this gratitude out of me, but finally, they managed. I watched as they bullied and supplanted other suppliers, scorned and then tried to coopt the internet, scorned and then tried to coopt Web 2.0, scorned and then tried to coopt free email and blogs.
Microsoft didn’t have to be utopian in Brand’s manner. It didn’t have to be "all about creativity and self expression" in the manner of Jobs and Apple. It just had to be curious, open, searching, not merely the supplier of the operating systems of this new revolutionary world, but somehow animated by its best hopes and biggest promises. It was as if Microsoft had been cursed by the things we like least about the corporation: the rule bound, hierarchical, arrogant, self serving, insular, dark, collapsing, and, yes, diminishing.
From a branding point of view, the Microsoft fiasco was astonishing to watch. Here was a corporation that could build a brand at a time when the category was new, the consumer was new, and they had almost limitless resources with which to work (there was a time when Microsoft had $50 billion in cash). Here was an opportunity to build a brand like no other. There was even someone called Steve Jobs testing the alternatives. But, no, Microsoft was apparently too arrogant to make an effort and too ham-handed to succeed when it did. Things have gone so badly that it was hard not to wonder whether this was an unprecedented string of bad luck or perhaps even God’s punishment. Perhaps Microsoft couldn’t ever be Jobsian because it would always be Jobbian.
The gods contest most painfully. Generally, we the consumers are well served. Microsoft continues to pave the way for Google’s success. We should all have enemies like Microsoft (unless of course they supply our operating system and our office software). But it is time for Google to step up and create an office suite that is not cobbled together from Web 2.0 startups. It is time to take its considerable fortune and offer it up as a ransom. I believe I speak for everyone when I say, we the users of Microsoft software plead for our release.
Pogue, David. 2007. Purging Bloat to Fashion Sleek Software. New York Times. January 18, 2007. here.
Several. n.d. Don’t be Evil. Wikipedia. here.