Microsoft: What Now for Search?

July 24, 2008

Googzilla twitches its tail and Microsoft goes into convulsions. When I was in the management consulting game, my boss, Dr. William Sommers, talked about “hyper-actions”. The idea was that a single event or a minor event would trigger excessive reactions.


Brain scan of a person undergoing excessive “excitement” and “over reaction”.

When I read the flows-like-water prose of Kara Swisher’s “Microsoft’s Latest Web Stumble: Kevin Johnson Out” and then her brief introduction to Mr. Steve Ballmer’s “Full Memo to the Troops about New Reorg”, I thought about Dr. Sommers’s “hyper-action” neologism. In my opinion, we are watching the twitch in Mountain View triggering via management string theory the convulsions in Redmond.

First, let me identify for you the points that jumped from screen to neurons in Ms. Swisher’s write ups.

  1. Ms. Swisher reports that Mr. Kevin Johnson was the architect behind the Yahoo buy out. I thought that the idea was cooked in Mr. Chris Liddell’s lamb-roasting pit. Obviously my sources were off base. Mr. Johnson moves to Juniper and Mr. Liddell continues to get a Microsoft paycheck. Mr. Liddell’s remarks at the March 2008 Morgan Stanley Technology Conference left me with the impression that he was being “systematic” in his analysis. Here’s one take on his remarks.
  2. Ms. Swisher’s run down of Microsoft’s actions so far in 2008 is excellent, and she reminded me that Microsoft bought aQuantive, a fact which had slipped off my radar. What has happened to aQuantive for which Microsoft paid $6 billion, more than what Microsoft paid for Fast Search & Transfer and Powerset combined. He mentioning aQuantive reminded me of those wealthy car collectors on the Speed Channel’s exotic automobile auctions. What do you do with a $1.2 million Corvette? You put it in a garage. You don’t run down to the Speedway in Harrods Creek, Kentucky, to buy a pack of chewing tobacco.
  3. Ms. Swisher turns a great phrase; specifically, “Microsoft has succeeded in burnishing its image as a Web also-ran and still has an uncertain path to change that.” I quite like the notion that a large company takes one action and succeeds in producing an opposite reaction. I think the Google folks would peg that as one of the Laws of Google Dynamics applied to Microsoft. For every action, there is a greater, opposite reaction that persists through time. (Ms. Swisher’s statement that Yahoo looks stable brought a smile to my face as well.)

Next, let me comment on the Mr. Steve Ballmer reorg memo, which will be a classic in business schools for years to come. The opening line will probably read, “Mr. Steve Ballmer, firmly in control of Microsoft, sat at his desk and looked across the Microsoft campus. He knew a bold strategic action was needed to deal with the increasing threat of Google, etc. etc.”

After the razzle dazzle about goals, the memo gets down to business:

We will out-innovate Google in key areas—we’re already seeing this in our maps and news search. Third, we are going to reinvent the search category through user experience and business model innovation. We’ll introduce new approaches that move beyond a white page with 10 blue links to provide customers with a customized view of their world. This is a long-term battle for our company—and it’s one we’ll continue to fight with persistence and tenacity.

Let me offer a few observations about Microsoft innovation and Google innovation. I will elaborate on these points in my for fee report that I am preparing for release in September. You get a preview.

  1. Google has not been an innovator. Google takes the appropriate technology to solve a problem. The approach at Google is similar to what a good math student does with a math puzzle. Everyone knows the pieces, but only the clever math person can stick them together in the right way to get the answer. Remember how maddening that was in math class? The guy who did this in my advanced calculus class in high school was Verlin Behm. He just “saw” the answer. That’s the key to Google innovation: stuff that is available to anyone put together to solve the problem. Take database reads and writes. These are a huge problem now at Amazon, Microsoft, and Yahoo. Not at Google. Why? Think of a way to goose performance by avoiding Codd bottlenecks. Can’t figure it out can you? Well, Google did. In 1999!
  2. Google scales. I have been delivering briefings about this simple point ever since I crossed swords with Larry Page at a search engine meeting in 1999 or 2000. Even though he and I disagreed strongly about lemmatization, we saw eye to eye on scale. The reason search is expensive, painful, and complicated is that there’s lots of data and it changes. Toss in lots of users and you have a scaling problem. Google has done a better job of engineering to scale than any vendor now in the market. Period.
  3. Google is not–I repeat–not a search and advertising company. Sure, Google started with search in its formative days as BackRub. But that was now more than a decade ago. By solving the hard problems in search, Google created either by accident, luck, or design the next-generation computing architecture. The Google platform is not a research gizmo tucked away in a lab. The Google construct is one big dude, and it has been getting bigger every year for a decade. Google is today’s Ma Bell monopoly reinvented, jazzed up, and given lime-flavored Guarana Speed Ball (non narcotic, of course).

I don’t need to rehash the market share, brand dominance, or wacky image of fun loving nerds that the New York Times, Time Magazine, and Globes Online: Israel’s Business Arena propagates.

What Microsoft is trying to do with a reorganization is akin to recreating the what Ma Bell in its salad days. Sure Ma Bell fell on hard times as will Google. But Googzilla is not yet a teenager, and it can body slam bigger, older, richer challengers for a number of years.

You can find out more about Google’s technical approach and how its technology helps predict what Google will be doing with its application platform going forward. Yes, there’s Web search and advertising. But my research suggests some other opportunities, not just moving into the enterprise. Think scale. Think solving the pain of the mind boggling complexity of SharePoint. Think young people hooked on Google moving into banking, retail, entertainment. Now you are on the right track. Details about these initiatives are here. Keep in mind that in my 2005 study The Google Legacy and the 2007 Google Version 2.0, I was describing Google as it was three years earlier. The new Google initiatives are not well known. One will be described in a forthcoming IDC report. Sorry, I don’t have a link yet, but I will post it when the research firm sends it along. The release date is imminent. That report talks about a relatively new Google initiative with significant implications for a number of organizations, applications, and users. Did you ever want to query and have results ranked by the probability that the “answer” is accurate? Google does.

But I don’t need Google’s hottest technology to predict the hyper-actions in Redmond when news of this new Google innovation circulates.

To close, what now for search? I received several messages from one of Microsoft’s newest search wizards. I can’t reveal the substance of those missives, but I can tell you, “I don’t have the foggiest idea.” If anyone does, please, use the comments section of this Web log to brief me.


My, my, this reorg is the hot topic. I just scanned a number of new posts and recommend that you read these:

  • Steve Gillmor’s Running, Jumping, Standing Still. Many details. TechCrunchIT
  • Ron Schenone’s “Microsoft – Trouble in Paradise. Nails the two big problems at MSFT. Lockergnome.
  • Larry Dignan’s “Ballemr Does Windows”. Reminds me that Mr. Ballmer is now in charge of everything. ZDNet Web logs.

Stephen Arnold, July 24, 2008


2 Responses to “Microsoft: What Now for Search?”

  1. TJGodel on July 28th, 2008 9:42 am

    Google has not been an innovator? I would have to disagree, your second (Google scales) observation contradicts because your first (Google has not been an innovator). Improved business process can be an innovation.

  2. Stephen E. Arnold on July 28th, 2008 2:41 pm

    Hi, TJGodel,

    Nope, Google is not an innovator. Google uses its skill in defining a problem, looking for ways to solve that problem using techniques that are often “old hat” or explained in various college courses, and assembling these components in ways to produce an “Ah Ha” solution. Google is an applied engineering firm with a business model developed by the folks but gussied up and made scalable. I’m not detracting from Google’s achievements. I’m just putting the focus on defining the problem and the firm’s ability to cull the “tricks” from various research endeavors. Google’s brilliance is in assembling the components into its infrastructure and services.

    Stephen Arnold, July 28, 2008

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