The war drums are beating. Google has shown the world that delivering quality search results and services can translate into a hell of a lot of money. Microsoft, never one to sit idle while major trends ripple through the technology world, has its own plans to attack the web-based services and applications space. And let’s not forget Yahoo! They’ve fully embraced the Web 2.0 trends by acquiring companies like Flickr and del.icio.us. The war drums are not only beating, but they’re getting louder and louder. Everyone is focused on the battle and the combatants but few consider where this battle is being fought. The battlefield today lies inside your web browser. That’s all about to change.
A fundamental premise for winning this battle is the ability to get users to interact with your services. Once they’re talking, the next step is to pay very close attention to them. Gather their search queries. Read their emails. Index their documents. Google has shown the world that the undeniable need to seek out and find good information leads to a lot of money. To date, the web browser has been the primary gateway between these various services and users. The billions of dollars that Google is generating is hanging on a single, simple URL. If any of these players can capture that entry point – or jeopardize or supplant it, they will have won a key battle in the war.
But there’s a wrinkle in all this. Not many people have noticed, but the browser is starting to show its age. As simple API’s continue to proliferate, and as simple push technologies like RSS continue to gain adoption, the browser itself is beginning to…leak. Information and these key entry points are starting to show up in other places.
Visiting both Yahoo! and Google in Microsoft’s Internet Explorery 7 web browser generated the following, tweaked landing pages:
Notice how both pages attempt to entice the user to change their default search box (Firefox has a similar capability). The URL, as a primary entry point, is clearly being threatened by new browser capabilities. We should not underestimate the millions of users who buy Dell’s, plug them in, flip them on and just start using the Internet. They are not interested in tweaking or refining. They simply want things to work. A very large percentage of searches start from within that little search box that sits near the top of your browser.
As the critical entry point for users shifts from URL to some readily available interface control, the various combatants will find themselves standing on a different battleground. Specifically, they’re standing on Microsoft’s soil. If you venture beyond the web browser, it is invariably Microsoft’s territory. This critical distinction conjurs up memories of Netscape, and antitrust and icons and desktops. Google has already raised concerns about Internet Explorer 7 and it’s ever-present search box that defaults to MSN Search. The New York Times article nicely touches upon the crux of the issue:
That slice of on-screen real estate has the potential to be enormously valuable, and Microsoft is the landlord.
Google’s concerns are completely justified. And as you can see from the screen captures above, they’re going to make every effort to speak to users and help them make the necessary tweak to move away from other web properties and back to Google. As to whether this practice is anti-competitive on Microsoft’s part is a much harder argument to make. The feature is not some useless tactic to torpedo competitors but a rather useful one that brings more power into the users hands.
Google Heart Firefox
Another clear hint that it’s not just about the web page but the browser itself is Google’s commitment to Firefox. The standard Firefox installation defaults the homepage to Google. Google donates $1 to the Mozilla Foundation if you download Firefox. And just recently, they’ve gone ahead and promoted Firefox on the sacred Google homepage (if viewed through Internet Explorer). The end game is clear here for Google: maintain some control over the software that sits on people’s computers. It’s also worth noting that Firefox contains the same quick search that, of course, defaults to Google results.
Goodbye Browser. Hello Desktop.
The big players know full well that the battlefield is going to expand even beyond the web browser’s chrome and onto the desktop itself. All three players have their own flavors of “Desktop” applications. Google has sprinkled various pieces of their services (maps, news and others) into their desktop application – Google Desktop. The goal for all three is the same: build relationships between their web properties and users. Create a dependency. Gather usage metrics. Get to know these users and target them with ever-more accurate ads. It’s a pretty straightforward strategy.
Microsoft’s Two-Pronged Attack
You can’t help but watch this unfold and surmise that this is all playing nicely into Microsoft’s hands. As Internet applications become more sophisticated, the appeal of bringing them directly to the desktop in a more targeted manner is very strong. The result is a smoother end-user experience where data and services are intermingled throughout the desktop experience.
The next phase in this battle will be fought on the desktop. Microsoft will invariably use it’s position to squeeze their competition at every opportunity. With Windows Vista and their Live initiatives, they are planning already planning an exodus away from the browser.
On one end, you’ve got Microsoft Gadgets. Today, developers can easily build little widgets that can live on Microsoft’s Live personal portal page. Hundreds have already been built. Google provides developers with a similar capability for their personalized portal page. But what’s interesting about Microsoft’s play is that their gadgets will actually run outside of the browser, either on the desktop or the Vista sidebar. There’s already an SDK available for the latest build of Vista. So it’s clear that Microsoft views the Gadgets and the Live initiative in general as not just another set of web applications but a suite of services and content that fit holistically into Microsoft’s grander picture.
Microsoft is also attacking from the opposite end – the desktop. They’ve completely reworked the presentation layer for their operating system. Sitting atop this layer is the XAML markup language. XAML is to the Windows desktop what HTML is to the conventional browser. Developers can create a Windows front-end that is wired to web services via simple XML. Users will be able to click on a link in an email or web page and a full-blown application can spawn. No download. No installation. The potential impact of XAML may well be massive. Imagine solutions and content delivered in a perfectly tailored way right to your desktop. Widgets. Toolbars. Floating controls. All tied directly to services and content. An eBay wizard for adding items. An Amazon wishlist application. The possibilities are very exciting.
Where Do The Ads Go?
If all these great services are headed away from the browser and onto the desktop, the proverbial question has to be asked: where do the ads go? Will users tolerate advertisements on the desktop. The desktop is clearly perceived as a personal space today. Users infer a clear delineation of the windows that allow them to peer into the rest of the Internet (i.e. browsers, chat clients) and their own personal world. Sure, we’d love to see Google results streamlined into a sidebar or widget, but let’s face it, Google is in no hurry to move as away from the web. The web is where the ads are.
This all highlights one precariously painful reality for a company like Google. The billions in ad revenue hangs on a single thread: the URL destination. All roads need to lead back to the web for Google to sell ads. As the desktop continues to light up with content and capabilities from the Internet, the relative importance and dependancy of the URL destination will continue to diminish. Users will not go someplace to do something. They’ll open a box or run a program or click on a toolbar.
The New Guerilla War
As content and functionality continue to leak out of the browser, the weapons needed to win this battle are going to change. Microsoft owns the arena and the other players will use every means possible to offset their clear advantage. It doesn’t surprise me one bit that Google is lobbying the government against Microsoft’s supposed “unfair advantage.” This time around though, Google may have a much tougher time convincing others that what Microsoft is doing is unfair. As Jeremy Zawodny points out, there’s a bit of a double standard at play here. Google is no babe in the woods and they’ve made some pretty overt moves to try to position themselves as the default search engine for users.
Beyond this highly sought-after entry point for search, the PC experience outside the browser will progressively be wired more and more to the Internet applications and data. Will Google complain over an envelope icon that launches a desktop client that is wired directly into Live Mail? Will Yahoo! complain that it’s del.icio.us social bookmarking site is being unfairly threatened by a seamless implementation of Live Bookmarks? The list goes on and on.
By moving software away from the browser and decentralizing it, the nature of the battle fundamentally changes. Whereas the battlefield was clearly delineated prior, the war zone is now far less tangible. It’ll be interesting to watch the different tactics materialize. A lot of mindshare and money is at stake.