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Big Questions
Would such an architectural strategy work? I’m not sure, but I think so. I also suspect that if Google doesn’t do something like this fast, and Microsoft attacks, Google will go down. Its decline would take longer than Netscape’s precipitous descent, but it would be no less final. And at least during the second term of the George W. Bush administration, it is highly unlikely that antitrust policy would come to the rescue.

Whether Google or Microsoft wins, the implications of a single firm’s controlling an enormous, unified search industry are troubling. First, this firm would have access to an unparalleled quantity of personal information, which could represent a major erosion of privacy. Already, one can learn a surprising amount about people simply by “googling” them. A decade from now, search providers and users (not to mention those armed with subpoenas) will be able to gather far more personal information than even financial institutions and intelligence agencies can collect today. Second, the emergence of a dominant firm in the search market would aggravate the ongoing concentration of media ownership in a global oligopoly of firms such as Time Warner, Bertelsmann, and Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation.

If the firm dominating the search industry turned out to be Microsoft, the implications might be more disturbing still. The company that supplies a substantial fraction of the world’s software would then become the same company that sorts and filters most of the world’s news and information, including the news about software, antitrust policy, and intellectual property. Moreover, Microsoft could reach a stage at which its grip on the market remains strong, but its productivity falls prey to complacency and internal politics. Dominant firms sometimes do more damage through incompetence than through predation.

Indeed, as so many have noted, much of Microsoft’s software is just plain bad. In contrast, Google’s work is often beautiful. One of the best reasons to hope that Google survives is simply that quality improves more reliably when markets are competitive. If Google dominated the search industry, Microsoft would still be a disciplining presence; whereas if Microsoft dominated everything, there would be fewer checks upon its mediocrity.

*Disclosure: As the result of selling Vermeer Technologies to Microsoft in 1996, Charles Ferguson still holds a substantial quantity of Microsoft stock, a position which is partially but not completely hedged. He has no other financial interest relevant to this article.

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