Sometimes I swear the Times runs articles just to make my head hurt. Consider this op-ed by one Robert X. Cringely, who does actually appear to be a fictional character dreamt up by Arthur Sulzburger (or other, darker forces) to be the instrument of my torment:
Microsoft makes most of its money from two products, Microsoft Windows and Microsoft Office. Nearly everything else it makes loses money, sometimes deliberately. Google makes most of its money from selling Internet ads next to search results. Nearly everything else it does loses money, too.
Neither company really cares because both make so much from their core products that it simply doesn’t matter. But companies, like people, strive and dream and in this case both dream, at least sometimes, of destroying the other. Only they can’t — or won’t — do it in the end, because it is against the interests of either company to do so.
The theory here is that these companies are just burning money for no better reason than the “dream” of crushing the other—though they’d harm themselves even in victory? Sergey Brin is Khan Noonien Singh, basically? I feel like we have a more parsimonious explanation here. “Nearly everything else” Google does is either another way of getting ads in front of eyeballs or is, in fact, also profitable—with the potential to become more so once they’ve been doing it for as long as they’ve been providing search. Nearly everything else Microsoft does is an attempt to enhance the value of Windows. Oh, and there’s XBox, which also finally went profitable last year. I guess maybe the Zune is part of some kind of striving-and-dreaming to stick it to the iPod, cost be damned… or maybe products companies hope to profit from just flop sometimes.
What Google’s chief executive, Eric Schmidt, has to fear more than anything else is that he’ll awake one day to learn that the Google search engine suddenly doesn’t work on any Windows computers: something happened overnight and what worked yesterday doesn’t work today. It would have to be an act of deliberate sabotage on Microsoft’s part and blatantly illegal, but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen. Microsoft would claim ignorance and innocence and take days, weeks or months to reverse the effect, during which time Google would have lost billions.
The other thing he really fears is that he’ll awake to learn that Steve Ballmer has bludgeoned his own gonads to a pulp with a claw hammer. Whoops! No, sorry, I get mixed up sometimes: The common thread there isn’t “persistent fears of Google executives” but rather “insane things Microsoft would never do.” I mean, I suppose it’s conceivable that in a fit of acute syphilitic dementia, some MS honcho might think it were a good idea to cut their customers off from the most popular site on the Internet, disabling a whole slew of ancillary applications, and leaving Windows with a reputation that makes the Corvair look like a Benz. But I also feel confident said honcho would be packed off to the countryside for some therapeutic rest before he got too far, and I very much doubt Eric Schmidt is losing much sleep over it.
Actual sane reason for Google to release a free OS: Lowering the cost of networked computing devices (by eliminating the software licensing fees) increases the potential number of online eyeball-hours. More so if you do it with an OS designed to be used with Web/cloud apps of the sort Google specializes in delivering. It doesn’t need to “supplant Windows” if it can grow the networked-device pie. I can’t say I care enough to think very hard about what Microsoft is doing with Bing, but unless Steve Ballmer has an MBA from the Travis Bickle School of Business, I doubt it’s to “remind Google who they’re messing with.” I realize we’re in a period of correction away from idealized models of perfectly rational markets, but I doubt the alpha-monkeys-flinging-feces-at-each-other model will prove substantially more predictive.