Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Search Wars: Google Options

What’s Next for Google
By Charles H. Ferguson, MIT Technology Review, January 2005

For Eric Schmidt, Google’s CEO, 2004 was a very good year. His firm led the search industry, the fastest-growing major sector in technology; it went public, raising $1.67 billion; its stock price soared; and its revenues more than doubled, to $3 billion. But as the search market ripens into something worthy of Microsoft’s attention, those familiar with the software business have been wondering whether Google, apparently triumphant, is in fact headed off the cliff.

I’ve seen it happen before. In September 1995, I had breakfast with Jim Barksdale, then CEO of Netscape Communications, at Il Fornaio in Palo Alto, CA, a restaurant popular with Silicon Valley dealmakers. Netscape had gone public a few months earlier, and Netscape Navigator dominated the browser market. Vermeer Technologies, the company that Randy Forgaard and I had founded 18 months earlier, had just announced the release of FrontPage, a Windows application that let people develop their own websites. Netscape and Microsoft were both preparing to develop competing products. Our choice was to stay independent and die or sell the company to one of them.

At breakfast, and repeatedly over the following months, I tried to persuade Barksdale to take Microsoft seriously. I argued that if it was to survive, Netscape needed to imitate Microsoft’s strategy: the creation and control of proprietary industry standards. Serenely, Barksdale explained that Netscape actually invited Microsoft to imitate its products, because they would never catch up. The Internet, he said, rewarded openness and nonproprietary standards. When I heard that, I realized that despite my reservations about the monopolist in Redmond, WA, I had little choice. Four months later, I sold my company to Microsoft for $130 million in Microsoft stock. Four years later, Netscape was effectively dead, while Microsoft’s stock had quadrupled.

Google now faces choices as fundamental as those Netscape faced in 1995.


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