The search standards non-war

I finally got around to reading Charles Ferguson's much-linked (and mostly lauded, from what I saw) Technology Review piece, What's Next for Google, in which he argues that Google is facing an "architecture war" against Microsoft that could be its undoing.

The first key point in the argument is why Google's competitive landscape is going to change fundamentally: "If nothing were to change, the growth of Microsoft's search business would only create a broader oligopoly, similar, perhaps, to those in other media markets. But the search industry will soon serve more than just a Web-based consumer market." He goes on about how there's all this other stuff to search too (desktop, corporate, etc.), and that's going to require standards to tie it all together. First of all, Google Desktop (among others) already ties together many of these types of content without any open standards. And secondly, why do we assume everything will need to be searched at once? I doubt that's going to be a reasonable user experience in most cases.

But fine, there will be standards of some sort. It's a much bigger stretch to then say that because standards are likely to emerge, "Microsoft, Google, and Yahoo will be forced into a winner-take-all competition for control of industry standards."

The article goes on to explain how IBM, Intel, Microsoft, and Cisco developed "proprietary control over a major information technology standard," and it made them a lot of money for a long time. And then we leap directly to, "It is only standardization that makes it possible for any browser to display any Web page, or for people to read the documents and e-mail messages they receive from each other." Uh-huh. And which companies have proprietary control over the web page and email standards?

Not all standards create lock-in—even if a vendor wants them to. If Google were to take the advice offered—aggressively develop its APIs and "make sure they become the industry standard," Microsoft could easily "embrace and extend" those APIs (and vice-versa). I think Google should get more aggressive about their API to encourage innovation and new services, but there's no opportunity here for win32-like lock-in.

There are a lot of other valid points in the article, but I agree with John Battelle—on the whole, the premise is wrong.

The boring truth is, search is not winner-take-all market (whatever "search" entails at this point).