Google turned 15 on Friday, smack in the middle of its adolescence. Unlike most teenagers, Google isn't grappling to find its identity, get a date, or rebel against its parents. It's more like an alien presence fully grown that arrived from a distant planet with a supernatural search algorithm and now possesses powers to augment and profit from the digital lives of earthlings.
Google's PageRank algorithm took signals from the Worldwide Web and turned them into formulas that delivered increasingly relevant search results as the Internet expanded. Then the company discovered how to create a frictionless system that matched advertising with search queries. On Thursday, Google revealed PageRank's latest descendent Hummingbird, which has improved methods for indexing the web to facilitate answering more complex queries.
But Google's ambitions, even at an early age, have been far more than delivering search results and ads. When Google was six, co-founder and now CEO Larry Page said Google's search will be included in people's brains.
"When you think about something and don't really know much about it, you will automatically get information. "Eventually you'll have an implant, where if you think about a fact, it will just tell you the answer," Page said in Steven Levy's In the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works and Shapes our Lives." At this juncture, Google is collecting as much data as it can about each person using various Google services to provide more targeted and intelligent services. The company is also building a massive, semantically rich library of human knowledge to match against queries and still figuring out how to re-engineer the human brain in software.
On the road to infiltrating peoples' brains, curing death and automating driving over the next few decades, Google has been taking more practical steps as a company to spread its engineering DNA and rule over more prosaic parts of the computing industry.
While search delivers the lion's share of revenue and profit, and moonshots like self-driving cars persist as long-term investments, Google is disrupting multibillion-dollar business sectors that much older companies like Microsoft and Apple have carved out. It's not exactly at the center of Google's mission to "organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful," but close enough given the adjacency to the search engine and the amount of revenue and user data at stake. Hence, Google has taken on Microsoft Office with Google Apps; Microsoft, Amazon and others with Google Cloud; Apple's iOS and Microsoft's Windows Phone with the Android mobile platform; and Microsoft and Apple via its Chrome operating system.
If fact, Google's 21st century business trajectory parallels how Microsoft grew into the 800-pound gorilla of the computing industry in the last century. In 1990, Microsoft was 15 years old and became the first personal computer software company to exceed $1 billion in revenue for a year. Its DOS and Windows operating systems had dominated the growing market for PCs for more than a decade, as Google has for search. Microsoft Office - a bundle of Excel, Word and PowerPoint -- also made its debut in 1990, and went on to completely dominate the productivity software business.
Bill Gates didn't have the notion of implanting Microsoft code in brains, but his vision from the inception of the company was to put a computer on every desk and in every home. In a speech given in November 1990 at Comdex, a PC industry trade show, Gates expanded his vision with the notion of "information at your fingertips." It was about making computers simpler and allowing them to work together better, and authoring multimedia CD ROMs as a way to make the world's information more accessible to consumers.
As Gates was calling for more CD ROMs to make information more accessible, Tim Berners-Lee began to prototype what would become the World Wide Web, foreshadowing the search engine that Google's founders would create eight years later that eventually left scrambling Microsoft to catch up.
It was also in the 1990s that Microsoft came under scrutiny from the antitrust division of the U.S. Department of Justice, which contended that the company used anti-competitive business practices to build a monopoly for its software.
As Google grew and became the dominant search engine, regulators in the US and Europe alleged the company was violating antitrust laws by search bias and traffic diversion, meaning Google favored its own content and services in search results.
During the recent financial analyst meeting, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said without irony, "I do believe that Google's practices are worthy of discussion with competition authority, and we have certainly discussed them with competition authorities. I don't think their practices are getting less meritorious of discussion." Recently, Microsoft and Google tussled over a Windows Phone YouTube app.
But the similarities go beyond being companies dominating a major computing software domain and attracting the interest of government regulators.
In their own ways, Microsoft and Google are trying to become a little more like each other. Microsoft is still playing catch-up with Google in search. It has invested billions in developing its search engine, Bing, and has managed to capture about 18 percent in the U.S. while Google holds steady at closer to 70 percent U.S. market share, and closer to 90 percent worldwide share.
Google has become more like Microsoft, trying to address consumers, small business, big business, gamers and gadgeteers, primarily with software. Google has aggressively encroached on Microsoft's Office domain with Google Apps over the last several years. According to Gartner's research, Google Apps had about 50 percent of the cloud-office market in 2012, and nearly 60 percent of Fortune 500 enterprises pay Google for some of their software services. Microsoft has been fighting back with Office 365 as the shift from desktop to cloud gets into a higher gear. Ballmer said that Microsoft has won back more than 400 enterprise accounts from Google in its fiscal year 2013 with products like Office 365 and its Azure cloud services.
In addition, Google's Android mobile platform, along with Apple's iOS, have completely trumped Microsoft's Windows Phone platform. And, like Microsoft with its home-grown Surface computers and soon-to-be Nokia phones, Google is building its own Chrome and Android hardware devices, following the Apple model.
While the 15-year-old Google is ascendent, the 38-year-old Microsoft its struggling to reboot and recover from missing the mobile revolution. Google is trying to grab pieces of Microsoft's incredible enterprise business, which generated close to $50 billion for the company's 2013 fiscal year, ending June 30. As Google ages and continues its quest to dominate across consumer and business sectors, the company's stewards would be wise to remember Microsoft's rise and fall. Disruption is just around the corner.