Has the worm turned? That’s the question a lot of folks are asking about Google these days, not the least of which is John Heilemann, whose piece has opened up a great discussion in the comments area of my post about it. As we often do, John and I beat this question around a bit this morning, and an interesting comparison came about. John, who wrote an excellent book on Microsoft called Pride Before the Fall, reminded me that while most peg Microsoft’s fall from its glory days to the attenuating DOJ trial of the late 1990s, the company’s true fall from grace came before that trial, when first the digerati, then the company’s potential partners started losing trust in Microsoft.
Why? John pegs it to a seminal 1997 Wall Street Journal article about the company in which Nathan Myhrvold (former MSFT CTO) speaks of his company taking a “vig” on nearly every transaction across the Internet. A year or so before that article, while managing editor of Wired, I met with Nathan. He pitched me his vision of Microsoft enabling – and profiting from – all commerce on the web (I wrote the meeting up for HotWired, but can’t find the damn link…). In any case, I recall Nathan taking out his wallet and slapping it on the table, and confidently predicting that anything you did with a wallet, Microsoft would own online. I was struck by the arrogance of such a claim, and the confidence with which he made it….I really believed that Microsoft was going to own ecommerce, and it both scared and fascinated me. Turns out, I was not alone.
As we discussed the finer points of the AAP lawsuit, John noted that Google is coming close to a “worm turning” moment – a moment when the world realizes that the company is *too powerful* and its ambitions are *too great.* When such a genie arrives, it is very, very hard to put back in the bottle. The one all encompassing difference, of course, is that Google has real competition – Microsoft in 1997 did not – but regardless, the cultural vibe is striking in its similarity. Remember in 1995, when Microsoft was literally at the top of its game, lauded on the covers of national magazines for saving the US economy via its launch of Windows 95? When Gates and Co. were heralded as ushering in a new era of digitized possibility?
I sure do. In seven short years, Google has gone from a geeky startup with one good idea into an agenda-shaping player responsible for navigating complex relationships with world governments, the personal privacy of millions, major trade organizations, and hundreds of thousands of businesses small and large. It’s an extraordinary weight to bear, it seems to me. It’s the kind of position that requires a balanced mixture of leadership, will, and diplomacy. There’s very little room for the go-it-alone mentality which got the company to where it stands today. Can the company shift its culture and avoid the fate which ultimately hobbled Microsoft? That, more than anything else, will define the next chapter in the company’s fascinating story.