Google The Bully?

Is Google becoming the bully that whisperers say it is?

The question has come up again since Microsoft announced a major reorganization into three main business divisions, largely in order to be more nimble about innovating and delivering software over the Internet.

Naturally, a big part of Microsoft’s reaction is due to the growth of open source software, thanks to the ease with which the Internet fosters a community to work on code from far-flung locales.

Looming much larger is Google .

The process of trimming seven divisions into three with MSN being elevated in the platform group underscores just how important — and operating system agnostic — Web-based applications are in threatening the Windows monopoly. Microsoft executives apparently saw this ten years ago with the rise of the browser and the Web. But Google is throwing the reality into high relief.

Google’s rapid growth, the speed with which it is rolling out new, Web-based technologies, has been as swift as the new tech is stunning.

And not just in its split-second search results, or its browser-like desktop tool, its nifty satellite mapping features, or its GoogleTalk IM features that are already positioned for video in the not-too-distant future.

Not to mention Google’s Wi-Fi network news, which it leaked out on its FAQ page. As we reported, Google said its Secure Access network experiment was created by one engineer during his “20 percent time,” the 20 percent of working hours that employees are encouraged to spend on projects interesting to them. In the Wi-Fi network experiment, it’s deploying technology that can “identify, target and deliver relevant and useful information to the user, in collaboration with online media, content, advertising and search services,” according to Feeva, the partner company working with Google on the service.

The hits just keep coming, even with its semi-victory in the recent hiring squabble with Microsoft. Google is calling it a win, because a court said Kai-Fu Lee, a former Microsoft researcher it hired away, can head up Google’s research office in China but not poach any recruits from Microsoft.

Google also has wooed Vint Cerf, the father of the Internet, to join as a tech evangelist. And then there’s that line of engineers clamoring to join the Google culture, and be a part of a certain “cachet.”

As Microsoft elevates its MSN online division in its Platform Products & Services division, with networking visionary Ray Ozzie expanding his role as chief technical officer by helping to drive its software-based services strategy across all three divisions, something else is happening at the mighty software goliath.

Microsoft is starting to look downright humble about the challenges an organization its size (60,000) and age (30) must overcome in order to innovate quickly. This in a culture that mostly revolves around writing code for a monster code base that makes up the Windows operating system and its dependencies.

At the same time, Google is scampering about, reveling in its darling status and rolling out new ways of communicating over the Web left and right, using massively distributed computing systems and cheap cluster servers scattered across the globe. But it also has shareholders to please, and corporate attorneys making sure it doesn’t run afoul of the SEC, as it continues to rake in billions from its advertising model.

Is Google flirting with becoming the evil corporate behemoth it explicitly said in its IPO prospectus that it doesn’t want to be?

Granted, some of that sentiment maybe have been planted back in late August when Gary Rivlin of the New York Times wrote about venture capitalists “fretting” about the growing power of Google. Bloggers weighed in with a collective “blah.” But the discussion was on.

Sources I’ve spoken to recently say there is a growing reluctance on the part of many companies, especially the start-ups that personify the Silicon Valley entrepreneurial culture, to incur Google’s wrath by saying anything that might smack of critical of the search engine giant. (Ask the folks at CNET about Google’s apparent refusal to work with them on stories because of information they published about CEO Eric Schmidt.)

Our recent Google’s Summer of Code follow-up story is a small example. We were able to report on the projects and the stampede of participants that wanted to be a part of the experiment in open source application innovation. But getting folks to talk to us on the record? We had so many nervous answers, it felt like they knew some Google algorithm somewhere was watching their every move.

Then there’s the money. Will it change everything as innovation talent becomes freshly-minted millionaires from Google’s IPO and $4 billion secondary? There’s always the Microsoft example to study.

Bill Gates still sits atop Forbes magazine’s annual list of the 400 richest Americans, with an estimated net worth of $51 billion.

But the dynamic duo of Google co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page are surging. Forbes ranked them 16th on the list with $11 billion each. That’s quite a scamper up the ladder since they toiled at number 43 last year with a mere $4 billion apiece. And, as Forbes points out, since the company’s IPO and a recent secondary, the two are raking in the bucks at a much faster velocity than Gates did after Microsoft’s public offering.

That might explain the buzz we’re hearing about some of the questions Google has been asking prospective job candidates, such as whether a potential hire is OK with managing people who are much wealthier than he or she is. It might be a legitimate question, but it also smacks of, “Hey, the people you’re about to manage, they’ve got plenty of ‘I can walk away’ money.”

That sounds a lot like ten years ago, when Microsoft Millionaires were being minted with each pop in the stock market.

Now, with Microsoft’s public mea culpas in the Wall Street Journal‘s in-depth look at the difficulties Microsoft encountered with Windows Vista a year ago — amid a remarkable candor with Microsoft’s participation in the article, a certain humility is taking hold in Redmond.

As it marks its 30th birthday this weekend, and no doubt continues its soul-searching, its latest corporate shakeup might just help Microsoft capture some new mojo it needs in order to be a nimbler company — and keep attracting engineering talent.

(Who knows, it might even lead to more discussions about breaking up the company so that innovation isn’t bogged down the way it always is in a corporate bureaucracy.)

At the same time, is an arrogance that once personified Microsoft’s image now creeping into the Googleplex, with its giddy millionaires running around (some in need of adult supervision), as it dings candidates with tons of experience and talent — but just not quite the perfect GPA?

David Drummond, vice president of corporate development for Google, disputes any notion of Google the Arrogant.

For one, he says, there are many things Google considers in evaluating recruits, including job experience, academic performance and culture fit, among other criteria.

“How we’re perceived is very important to us, because we know we’re not successful on our own. We know we make mistakes sometimes and do our best to correct them,” Drummond says.

“We think we draw some of the best talent because of the opportunity to be creative and work on big problems here,” Drummond adds. “We’re fortunate that this part of our culture draws the interest of some of the best innovators in the world.”

He has a point. Working at and meeting with Google means knowing how to operate in a fast-paced culture. This might rub some folks the wrong way when they stop by the Googleplex. Some may not feel like they can keep up.

Taken in the altogether, Google’s network-based technologies, which don’t care what kind of operating system or Web browser you’re using (for the most part), represent the promise of Web-based software and services that helped give rise to Internet mania a decade ago.

Now that the flotsam has been cleared out from the dot-com crash, Google is but one example of how powerful, and transforming, distributed computing systems can be over the Internet.

But it’s not the only company out there innovating with lightning speed. It just happens to be benefiting from great timing, while attracting major talent that can work unencumbered by legacy code base issues that Microsoft must address.

Google bristles at the notion of any creeping arrogance or that it’s on a fast-track to bully status with each leap of market power it attains.

It’s also smart enough to study 30 years of Microsoft’s operating history, and take lessons in how to preserve a culture of innovation and problem-solving, and be able to push technology past the thicket of corporate culture and into the hands of users.

Erin Joyce is executive editor of’s news channel

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