Talking Google with Brad Silverberg
Former Redmond exec discusses the battle over the Internet.
When Google Inc. launched the Chrome browser, it neatly picked up a storyline ignited more than 10 years ago by Netscape. Could Google Chrome and its post-HTML document worldview position Google to unseat Microsoft Windows as a platform for applications? We talked to Brad Silverberg, founding partner of venture capital firm Ignition Partners and the man at Microsoft who personally oversaw the company's historic turnaround to combat the sudden Internet threat.
Given your history at Microsoft with its nascent Internet efforts, and your ongoing engagements with the industry at Ignition Partners, what's your perspective on how Chrome might shape the decision making of developers currently mulling AJAX, Silverlight, Flash/AIR, and JavaFX for their rich Internet application (RIA) development?
Do you think Microsoft can neatly manage the threat posed by Google the way it did Netscape? In short, does Google's platform play have legs?
Clearly Google has the depth and breadth of talent as well as a deep understanding of the problem and developing Web apps to be a serious contender. One question that remains is how serious is Google? Is this something really important to them, or just something that's meant to distract Microsoft?
Microsoft's dev tools have been one of its most important, if not the most important, competitive advantages. But there has been a lot of catching up and developers using alternative tools are not at the same disadvantage as they used to be. Eclipse is fantastic.
"Microsoft's dev tools have been one of its most important, if not the most important, competitive advantages. But there has been a lot of catching up and developers using alternative tools are not at the same disadvantage as they used to be."
Brad Silverberg, Founding Partner, Ignition Partners
Do you think Google can build an ecosystem of dev tools and support to challenge Microsoft?
Microsoft has a long history of supporting corporate developers. That will continue to be a strength, but they will have to continue to innovate and respond as new and exciting developments like AIR and Chrome come out. If it weren't for AIR, there wouldn't be a Silverlight.
What's to prevent Google from suffering the same fate that befell Netscape in the Web platform arena?
Google has a lot of apps to help drive the platform, something Netscape didn't have. In addition, Google is an extraordinarily profitable company with an incredibly talented team of developers, so they can afford to make investments here.
It sounds like you expect Microsoft to really turn up the innovation, but weren't they doing so already?
For sure, Microsoft is paying a lot more attention to Web application tool development than they did a few years ago. But is it enough? Is it where their heart and soul are? Will they do new and innovative and interesting things, take risks, encroach on Windows' territory without being forced to in response to efforts by competitors? Silverlight/WPF [Windows Presentation Foundation] is a response to Flash/AIR; IE7/8 to Firefox; Windows Mobile is now light years behind iPhone, etc.
To what extent is Microsoft playing defense versus innovating in new ways? That will be the real measure. Perhaps being reactive is enough. At what point will Microsoft lead? Certainly Chrome is one more effort that puts the pressure on.
Well, Microsoft has always been an outstanding counter-puncher, and a lot of boxers make a good living this way. So the question, I suppose, becomes, what does Google have up its sleeve next?
For the last 10 years, Microsoft's most strategic competitive asset has been their tools. But they're not as far ahead as they used to be. Eclipse is excellent. Many of our companies now use Eclipse, whereas they used Microsoft tools in their previous jobs, and they rave about it. There's Firefox, Chrome, Flash/AIR, Rails, AWS, etc.
But does Google understand platforms and the roles that dev tools play? That will be interesting to watch. At the same time, I don't know if Google has to do it on their own, or if a group of companies -- as with open source plus Adobe, Amazon, etc. -- can drive things forward.
The platforms mindset is a huge issue. I'd certainly argue that Google has nothing approaching the strategic cohesiveness of Microsoft with its .NET-leveraged dev stack and increasingly roles-integrated tooling. Can Google get there?
I think that's the $64,000 question. Microsoft has had platform DNA for many years. Google's efforts to date haven't been as strategically cohesive but they do have consumer DNA, which Microsoft hasn't been so good at.
But a lot of Microsoft people have left for Google. Did they not take some of that DNA with them to Menlo Park?
Those people left Microsoft because they believed in the Internet and didn't think Microsoft would ever really get the Internet. They saw Google got the Internet but didn't get [the] platform. [These people] understood [the] platform, so they thought they could go to Google and help Google build [a] platform.
These were all superstar kinds of people -- the exact people I would hire if I wanted to build a platform and most especially if I were running Google. Some have been very happy there, but I know some have also been frustrated by the lack of platform DNA. In many ways Microsoft and Google are very similar and attract similar kinds of people; but in other ways, they're like Venus and Mars, and some people have real difficulty switching from one to the other.
So from a platform perspective, might Google simply remain a powerful and innovative army of irregulars, and refuse to line up like the king's infantry against Redmond? Somehow, I just think that approach hits a ceiling.
Certainly Microsoft sees Google as an army of irregulars, and that's why they've been confident -- overconfident -- of their ability to beat Google. They don't see a strong management team at Google and think if they can put Google under pressure, they believe Google won't be able to respond.
Of course, that's easier said than done. For a company without a strong management culture, Google's doing pretty well. And Microsoft -- for all its talent -- is not doing nearly so well in the Internet space.
It just seems the Web is going to innovate over time and disrupt those more single-vendor platforms. It may not have all the tooling at first or even eventually. It may not have all the platform coherence that a single vendor can make happen by throwing a lot of engineers and a team at the problem. But it will have the reach, provided the browsers are upgraded.
So you think competitive pressure will force a move?
Partly because of competitive pressure and wanting to keep developers happy with them -- they'll do something. They have two problems. One, they are on a two-year cycle as far as I can tell with IE development. Two, they have a lot of downgraded IE out there that they can't really force-update.
Maybe because we're a minority market-share browser -- and it's also because we're sort of a new-school type, not stuck in enterprise settings -- but Firefox has a pretty aggressive update policy. Partly, it's because we don't want to support old code, because it's very expensive and frankly we all want to work on the latest version, which has the best security. Safari is similar and so far Opera is similar. All these minority browsers try to keep everybody upgraded more often and more successfully than Microsoft seems to do.