Google: A Healthy Respect Towards Microsoft

The latest news out of Sun Valley, reported by the Wall Street journal’s Julia Angwin, is that Google CEO Eric Schmidt was cool to the idea of building its Chrome Web browser. Schmidt, a veteran of several wars with Microsoft, resisted the project for six years before a demo of the browser changed his mind.

This minor revelation says a lot about Google, I believe, and reflects a new more healthy attitude towards Microsoft–and perhaps a sign of maturity for Silicon Valley. Ever since Microsoft took over the market for PC operating systems and business software, Silicon Valley companies have generally assumed one of two positions towards Microsoft: abject fear (as evidenced by any startup) or loathsome obsession with taking it down (best embodied by Sun Microsystems’s former CEO Scott McNealy).

Schmidt’s position on Chrome reflects a new attitude toward the Redmond giant that I would characterize as healthy respect. Schmidt did not want to rush into a fight with Microsoft over the browser because he knew, having lost many battles with Microsoft as an executive at Sun and Novell, that it was an unwise and potentially distracting move for the company.

“At the time, Google was a small company,” Mr. Schmidt said. “Having come through the bruising browser wars, I didn’t want to do that again.”

Since then, Google has gotten much much bigger and much more powerful. The Chrome project, both the browser and the operating system, has evolved to a point where it was good enough to fight for consumer’s attention in the marketplace. And Microsoft, though it remains arguably the most powerful tech company in terms of its financial heft, is no longer the pole star around which the entire technology universe revolves.

Even so, Schmidt is still wide enough to not pull a McNealy and stick a finger in Microsoft’s eye, antagonizing the giant and attracting more attention from regulators poking around its business. Schmidt and Google cofounder Page, says Angwin, were careful not to position Chrome as a competitor to Microsoft Windows. They argued that Chrome will expand the market for netbooks, rather than eating into Windows’ share of the netbook market.

I doubt they really believe that. But it’s a much smarter move to play down expectations of this effort.

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