Goliath and Goliath

Now, if I were a suspicious person, I might say that such placement is meant to suggest something faulty about the software giant’s products by its chief competitor in the search market. But I wouldn’t go crying to the antitrust authorities about it.

Google’s talks recently with the U.S. Justice Department come across like a weak attempt to use Microsoft’s anti-competitive past against it. It is a weak attempt not because Microsoft improved its behaviour – its inclusion of MSN as the default search in the latest Internet Explorer seems like a familiar tactic – but because the complaint is coming from Google. If Ask.com, for example, bothered to raise a stink it might mean something. Dogpile would have an equally legitimate beef. Even Yahoo could claim it is worried. But Google? The company resembles Netscape only in that its products demonstrate ingenuity and compelling features. Google cannot portray itself as the David in this story. It’s the Goliath, fearful that a more experienced Goliath will take away its food.

No one seems to come out and call the default search box a bundle, but as a strategic move, whether it runs afoul of competition laws or not, it follows the same logic. I tend to use Google, for example, but if my computer came with MSN search I probably wouldn’t bother changing it. That is, unless I tried and failed to find what I was looking for on a regular basis. In most cases, I imagine the MSN tool would deliver good-enough searching, just as Windows has helped bring about an age of good-enough computing. There are diehards who will immediately do whatever it takes to get the defaults they want, but diehards are not what once put the IT industry into double-digit growth, and Google knows it. Apathy is the anti-competitive player’s killer app.

If the U.S. Justice Department and other regulatory bodies really wanted to ensure a level playing field, they would force the browser-makers to automate their default settings so that they would rotate on a monthly basis. It’s interesting that Firefox, the industry’s fastest-growing browser, not only puts Google as its default, but doesn’t include MSN in the drop-down of alternatives. You have to go to the “Add engines” button at the bottom and then look through the list of alphabetical options before you find it, where it receives a bland description (“MSN search engine”) compared to the promotional-sounding descriptions of other firms (“Better search results with keywords or questions” for Ask.com). I guess it’s OK for some people to play favourites.

Something like Rollyo might be a more equitable option for those who want to create their own short-cuts to necessary information, but the whole point of a search box in a browser is to make life easy. While they are focused on the lucrative online ad market, Microsoft and other browsers are missing the opportunity to create boxes that integrate desktop searches and other business intelligence tie-ins. That’s the kind of differentiation that would be truly competitive. The other option would be to get rid of the defaults altogether, but once you’re online, a search engine is the last thing you want to look for.

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