In a strange part of what was otherwise and interesting and insightful interview with TechCrunch this week, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer went out of his way to avoid naming Google, instead referring to them repeatedly as "the incumbent." This seemed to be a deliberate strategy and left me shaking my head wondering why he couldn't refer to Google by name. (The whole interview is interesting, so I encourage you to watch it, but the part I'm referring to begins at around 6:30.)
The Harry Potter Strategy
This reminded a bit of Harry Potter, where of course they refer to the evil Voldemort, as "he who must not be named." Perhaps by not naming Google, Ballmer (and by extension his strategy team) believe they can demonize the company and maybe reflect some of its own bad karma back to Google. It's important to remember that Google started this whole thing by inserting the "do no evil" nonsense into its business charter, which was no doubt a subtle dig at Microsoft.
These two companies could back on forth on this all the live long day and you wouldn't have a definitive answer. When companies get as large and rich as Google and Microsoft (and yes, Apple), they have the capacity to do great good and they have capacity to be evil. When the nature of the business is to destroy your competitor, some nasty crap can go down in the process.
The Advantage of Not Being the Incumbent
What Ballmer said when he was referring to Google as "the incumbent," was that his company had a bit more flexibility than "the incumbent," which could be true, but it's not as though Google has been sitting around resting on its success. But Ballmer argues that when you're on top like Google is, and by a good margin, you don't necessarily have the same flexibility to try new things as the company who has less to lose. One idea that Ballmer brought up was natural language processing. Again, I don't think this was just picked out of the air. He maintained that Microsoft could try things and still begin to creep up in the market share department.
But Google is not exactly sitting around doing nothing. They have recently developed Caffeine, a new algorithm. They are constantly introducing new services into Google Labs. This year, for example they introduced Google Voice and just last week, they debuted Sidewiki, a fascinating new project that enables visitors to add content to any web site. So while Ballmer would like us to believe that that "the incumbent" is slow and inflexible, the evidence suggests that's just not true.
And for the record, even though Ballmer would like us to believe his company is the underdog, it's not as though Microsoft is a poor relation here. They have plenty of resources to put to bear on this battle.
Microsoft Needs to Focus on Its Products
As Ballmer and TechCrunch reporter Michael Arrington pointed out, this has had a good year for Microsoft. It introduced Bing, the Zune HD and Windows 7 is having its coming out party next month. But when the chief executive speaks, he is always speaking deliberately on behalf of the organization. Ballmer understands this, so it seems more than a bit strange when he won't name his competitor. Can this nonsense get any more absurd? If you think these products are good, then why not simply let them stand on their own and stop the Harry Potter antics.