Google’s Squabble Over Desktop Search

Yesterday, The New York Times reported that the U.S. Department of Justice had come out against a complaint leveled by Google against Microsoft alleging anti-competitive behavior. Stephan Labaton of the Times described this move as, “The most striking recent example of the policy shift.” The shift that Labton refers to is the shift away from the proposed breaking up of Microsoft, the world’s largest software publisher, that started with an antitrust lawsuit brought against the Redmond, Washington-based giant in 1998.

The Times piece goes on to point out that the Justice Department’s urgings, not common in such cases, are suspect. That’s because Thomas O. Barnett, an assistant attorney general and top antitrust official at Justice, had been a top partner at the firm that represented Microsoft in several antitrust cases. While the piece reports that he never worked on the Microsoft case and that ethics lawyers have cleared his current involvement, it still tries to make a case for Bush Administration pro-Microsoft bias.

This is a typical reaction to anything that happens in Washington. The first questions that comes to mind, and often rightly so, is “Who benefits?” I don’t know if the Bush Administration somehow benefits from a Microsoft-favoring Justice Department, but I think that consumers will benefit from this decision.

To prove this, I suggest looking past the characters and personalities involved in the decision and instead focusing in on the specifics of the case, staring with its history.

Windows XP, released in 2001, features a horrible built-in search utility. Searching a local drive can be painfully slow, almost mind-numbing. That’s because Microsoft’s built-in search product slogged through the entire drive with each search. Google saw this as an opportunity and adapted its Web search technology to the desktop by creating an index that could be easily searched in seconds. In Vista, its latest operating system, Microsoft has corrected the built-in search utility blunder and now delivers results similar to Google’s.

Because of this correction, Google has filed a complaint that Microsoft has designed Vista to discourage the use of Google Desktop. It’s more accurate, however, to say that Microsoft is just trying to make up for its past failings.

My colleague Eli Lehrer pointed out to me this morning that even Apple, a bastion of computing feel-goodery, has done the same thing with its OS. Sherlock, a search utility, which was first bundled as a part of OS 8 and is now simply the Mac OS search utility.

Operating systems are the foundation of our virtual experiences, so we should expect that as virtual experience become a greater part of our lives, that operating systems should take on an increasing number of features to help us make sense of it all. This has happened in the past, as Microsoft has added undelete, the recycle bin, disk defragmentation, a firewall, anti-spyware software, and hundreds of other features to its operating system. Do we really want to buy these things separately and install them individually? No!

Google should take away from this experience that valuable lesson that building your business model around an obvious design flaw in a competitor’s product doesn’t make for long-term product viability. It’s like the maker of cup holders for cars griping that GM has decided to put cup holders into its cars, or the portable DVD player company upset that now every minivan has SpongeBob SquarePants playing on the factory-installed headrest displays. This kind of product integration has been around since the first tool-wielding primate lashed a stick onto a hand-axe. If only the Justice Department would have broken up that illegal bundling!

Besides, Google should realize that a ruling in its favor now would only be providing legal ammunition to its rivals if it finds itself as the defendant in an antitrust complaint. Google continues to improve its product by integrating more and more online services. Searches will become more accurate and advertising more attuned to our individual interests as Google becomes more aware of our online habits, not to mention the obvious convenience that comes with having picture storage and document clients integrated with Web-based email.

These integrations are boons to consumers, of course, but these benefits are easily be ignored as soon as the word “anti-competitive” is uttered. Google’s lead in the search market may be viewed as the online equivalent of Microsoft’s operating system dominance. I doubt that Google will care to face the same rhetoric that they’re throwing toward Redmond when some Internet upstart decides its can’t compete against the Googleplex.