CNET, yesterday, published an excellent interview with Microsoft (NASD: MSFT) chairman Bill Gates in which he discussed, among other things, a plucky upstart competitor called Google (NASD: GOOG). You can read the whole thing from the above link, or if you're lazy, you can read a good summary of it over at the Business 2.0 Blog. Here's the intro to the interview:
Would you buy Windows Vista?
For Bill Gates and Microsoft, that's the big question. This week at the software giant's Professional Developers Conference, Gates rallied the troops--software developers, Microsoft's most important audience--to build enthusiasm for Vista, the oft-delayed new version of Windows, and Office 12, an update to Microsoft's most profitable franchise.
Gates' mantra hasn't changed much in 20 years: The PC is the center of the computing universe, and Windows, along with Office and other products, represents the best platform for new software development. What is new, and is much in evidence this week in Los Angeles, is the growing influence of Web-based development.
it's funny to think about the Microsoft Professional Developers Conference, because sometimes it seems that nobody's developing for Microsoft, and that Microsoft isn't the biggest software company in the world. But of course they are, they're not rolling over and dying, and what they say and do is still very important.
Microsoft and Google represent opposite ends of the tech spectrum, and share opposite visions for the future of technology. In Google's vision, all of your important data, and the software required to use it is centrally housed, accessible via a browser on any device--aka a thin client. While the company's official mantra is that they want to "organize the world's information", the real mission is for the browser to replace the operating system.
Microsoft's vision, as stated earlier, is the same as always. The computer is where your data and software are held, not in some centralized locale. The key question is, what software will you run on your computer, and who will you pay for it? As over the last 20 years, they're banking on people sticking with old softy.
Whose vision will be correct? Right now, the technorati are all unanimously in agreement with Google's vision, and they await its inevitable victory. It seems that only Microsoft's own Robert Scoble will defend the so-called thick client.
Well, I wouldn't count the thick client out either. Market economics teaches us that decentralized decision making works better than centralization, and specifically that decisions should be made at the point of knowledge. What the Googleites see is a modern spin on the mainframe/terminal model that used to dominate at universities. Turns out that having one giant mainframe churning everyones' data wasn't as efficient as allowing people to crunch their own at their own computers.
Not only is centralization not the answer, but even within the chip, the trend is for multiple cores, each one tasked with a specific job. This is the idea behind Sony's new chip called "The Cell". Each of its eight cores has a different job such as video, audio, etc.
So which vision will win out? Well, I'll hedge my bets by saying a bit of both. The two companies, and their visions, must co-exist. We need independent actors, and a good way for them to communicate and share. To back this up, I'll quote from Friedrich Hayek's essay "The use of Knowledge in Society", and postulate that what's true for man is true for a computer:
If we can agree that the economic problem of society is mainly one of rapid adaptation to changes in the particular circumstances of time and place, it would seem to follow that the ultimate decisions must be left to the people who are familiar with these circumstances, who know directly of the relevant changes and of the resources immediately available to meet them. We cannot expect that this problem will be solved by first communicating all this knowledge to a central board which, after integrating all knowledge, issues its orders. We must solve it by some form of decentralization. But this answers only part of our problem. We need decentralization because only thus can we insure that the knowledge of the particular circumstances of time and place will be promptly used. But the "man on the spot" cannot decide solely on the basis of his limited but intimate knowledge of the facts of his immediate surroundings. There still remains the problem of communicating to him such further information as he needs to fit his decisions into the whole pattern of changes of the larger economic system.