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Thursday, May 18, 2006 - Page updated at 05:26 PM

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Brier Dudley

Zeal to innovate drives Google founders

Seattle Times staff columnist

After talking with the Google guys last week, I finally understand why Microsoft is so scared of them.

It's not because they built a better search engine or sell more ads than MSN. It's not because Google is poaching engineers from Redmond and branching into desktop software.

Microsoft is nervous because the Google guys have bigger things in mind than search. And they have the same bug that got Bill Gates and Paul Allen started back in 1975: Enchanted by the power and potential of computer systems, they want to make it easier and cheaper for everyone to use them.

Helping people find stuff online was just the start for Stanford pals Larry Page and Sergey Brin. Now they have the cash to do most anything else.

If they pull it off — and Google keeps making it easier and more fun to use computers — Microsoft may become irrelevant.

Page and Brin didn't say this outright during last week's media day at the Googleplex, their campus in Mountain View, Calif. But that's what I heard, in the nerdish answers they gave about their rivalry with Microsoft.

"If you just use your computer, there's all sorts of frustration with lots of things you do with your computer," Page said. "We're really looking at how do we solve those things, how do we get us closer to where we should be 10 years from now, and what are the opportunities there.

"We don't get there by looking at what other companies are doing, in general," he said. "We get there by having really great innovation and thinking hard and working hard."

What about the new Google applications, like a word processor, calendar and e-mail, that could displace Microsoft products? Page said Google isn't trying to "replace the things people are using." The company tries to make things that are better, he said, so much better "that everybody wants to use them, and over time hopefully we'll do more and more of that."

I'm not sure how they get any work done at the Googleplex. It's like a Disneyland for 20-something engineers who graze in free cafeterias that put Whole Foods to shame, then lounge in the sun beneath blue skies amid buildings decorated with huge outdoor sculptures. Or they roar through grassy courtyards on motorized scooters, while mountain bikes lie around like blocks in a preschool.

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That's just the chrome, though. What really lures smart programmers to Google is the same promise that Microsoft has made through the years: Come here to write software that will make people's lives better and change the world.

But I wouldn't write off Microsoft. It spends billions on its obsession with the computing "experience." It even named its flagship product XP, short for experience. And it has 30 years of experience making it easier and cheaper for the average person to benefit from the power of computers.

Meanwhile, Google is starting to trip over some of the obstacles Microsoft has faced during its reign as the king of personal computing.

Like meeting customers' expectations of quality. Windows and Office have their issues, but the latest versions work fine for most people most of the time.

Google's search service has likewise become a sort of utility that people and businesses depend upon. But Google executives acknowledged last week that customers have been let down by newer products they released without the same polish and reliability.

Google also admitted it's had challenges managing its growth. It prides itself on a startup culture that encourages engineers to develop new products, but it recently added controls to be sure most of their time is spent on its core search and advertising products.

New products released last week were basically just Google versions of software already released by Microsoft, Yahoo! and others.

Google is probably just as nervous as Microsoft. Chief Executive Eric Schmidt, who fought Microsoft while at Novell and Sun Microsystems, suggested a conciliatory view.

"It's certainly our collective belief that it's such a large space there are plenty of new problems to solve, and there's room for more than one winner," he said.

"And so for those of you who are absolutely obsessed with a winner and a loser, and us vs. another company — typically Microsoft — my feedback would be: You're missing the broader play where there's not going to be a single winner. ... Each of the strategies can coexist and be successful independent of the others."

Brier Dudley's column appears Mondays. Through the week, he writes a blog at seattletimes.com/brierdudleysblog. Reach him at 206-515-5687 or bdudley@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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