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Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.

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May 2, 2007 9:28 AM

Google vs. Mark Anderson, and Microsoft

Posted by Brier Dudley

I'm feeling like part of Chief Sealth's tribe -- I just saw a bear challenge a cougar on the shore of Elliott Bay.

It was a matchup between Friday Harbor tech pundit Mark Anderson and Peter Wilson, Google's engineering boss in Kirkland. They were part of a great panel discussion this morning at the WSA Investment Forum at the Bell Harbor conference center.

Anderson's been on a jag lately about the questionable value of ad-supported Web 2.0 businesses, most of which are riding the coat tails of Google.

He's also skeptical about the outlook for hosted applications, like Google's new online productivity software.

Wilson is at the center of the phenomenon Anderson is questioning -- he left Microsoft to lead engineering at Google's 300-person office in Kirkland.

He described shifts in software and its underlying business model, from client-server technology sold through licensing to the open-protocol Web and software that runs anywhere.

Wilson said corporate technology buyers are going to wonder why they're paying for the same applications their kids are using online for free. Then they'll start shifting to hosted applications.

Anderson said security is too big of a concern for companies to do everything online.

"The idea of giving all of my accounting data to anybody -- at Microsoft or Google -- is not going to happen,'' he said.

Wilson said the press likes the Google vs. Microsoft angle but the real story is the bigger shifts he described. Still, he had a few choice words for his former employer.

"Although they won the browser war, they kind of lost the war,'' he said, explaining that you can now run applications in any browser and that approach to computing is eroding the value of Windows.

"Every application that runs in the browser decreases the value of their franchise," he said.

Anderson noted that Google's plans to charge for its application bundle have stalled and the company still has "just one source of money -- its ads."

He also noted economic concerns, about recession and corporate spending heading overseas.

All the free services from Google and the "magic" around Web 2.0 "could all collapse in about 18 seconds if in the longer run there aren't really customers and real money."

Anderson is upbeat about the strength of wireless expertise in this region, and sees opportunities in security and emerging markets like China and India.

Wilson is enthusiastic about the future of user-generated content. In particular he's focused on video, beyond sharing; he's involved in Google's push to create a marketplace for consumers to sell the content they create and exposes online.

He's also hot for the "mashup idea" around new software tools and services. His characterization of the trend: "People who don't describe themselves as software developers can come up with useful things."

Wilson also talked up Tesla Motors, an electric car company backed by Google's founders.

Stuck between the two on the panel was Jeremy Jaech, the Aldus and Visio veteran who is now leading Trumba, an online calendaring startup. Jaech's career followed the evolution of computing from mainframes through the PC/packaged software era to software as a service. Now he's working through the online service business models.

Trumba "toyed" with the idea of being ad-supported, but realized early on that wouldn't generate enough revenue to support the service.

Trumba also considered consumer subscriptions, but it found that consumers expect online services to be free and are generally unwilling to pay for subscriptions.

Now the company is moving its service up-market, targeting bigger organizations that are willing to pay for the service. It's winning some deals, but it's also encountering resistance from potential customers that still want to build and run applications in-house.

If Anderson's the bear and Wilson's the cougar, maybe Jaech's a seagull on the beach, watching the waves and hoping they expose his next meal.

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Gadgets and games | Fun stuff I've written about lately includes Apple's iPhone, Hewlett-Packard's HDX laptop and Microsoft's Halo3. Also on the radar are new digital video boxes such as the Tivo HD and the Vudu.