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Microsoft and Google: Another Patriots' Day?

Yesterday was Patriots' Day, a uniquely Boston holiday that's meant to honor the first battle of the American Revolution but mainly serves as a mini-spring break and as the weekend of the Boston Marathon. (No, it has nothing to do with Tom Brady.) Oh, and there's an 11 a.m. Sox game every Patriots' Day, too -- yesterday, they completed a sweep of the Texas Rangers.

Not that your editor was watching that game while "working from home," of course...ahem. Oh, and he didn't take a couple of hours to watch his friends run in the marathon, either -- as far as you and his boss know. What he did do, though, was drag his wife out of bed at 5 a.m. and head to the next town over, Lexington, for the reenactment of the first battle of the American Revolution. (There's that "true meaning" of Patriots' Day again -- and, yes, your editor took the linked photo. Hey, it was dark...and early.)

Anyway, what's striking about the battle reenactment, other than the fact that it starts at 6 a.m., is that it's really short. It lasts not even 10 minutes. That's because the battle itself was fairly short; the King's red-clad army whipped the colonial farmers pretty quickly -- on that day, anyway. Of course, we know that as what would become the American Revolution dragged on, those colonists fared better and better and eventually took down one of the world's great powers. (Well, they got King George III to give up, anyway -- but we digress.)

One of the reasons why the first citizens of the United States were able to win was that they were fighting at home, on their own turf. Eventually, the British got sick of sending men and money to the American colonies to fight a grinding war. And so (finally, but you knew it was coming) we see some parallels between the American Revolution and the battle between Microsoft and Google.

Late last week, Microsoft released details about Project Albany, which had been a terribly kept secret for a while. It'll be a hosted bundle of popular Microsoft Office applications -- you know the gang: Word, Excel and PowerPoint -- plus some security and collaboration stuff. It'll be a lot like Google Apps when it's available, except that it won't be free. On the other hand, though, if the Office apps have all of their features, Albany should offer a lot more functionality than Google Apps (maybe even too much).

Nobody has ever knocked Microsoft off of the productivity suite throne. Even Google Apps is a drop in the bucket -- maybe the ocean -- in terms of market share compared to Office. But, just like those Lobsterbacks (nobody actually called them the Redcoats, from what we've read) fighting on another continent, Microsoft is setting up to do battle on Google's Web turf now, and victory isn't guaranteed.

As it has been with a lot of new technologies (remember Netscape?) Microsoft is a little behind the curve with its SaaS offerings. Plus, Microsoft hasn't exactly cleaned up against Google in search the way King George's men did in Lexington yesterday morning. In fact, Google is still routing Redmond in a space that Steve Ballmer and his cohorts would love to own.

So, on one hand, Microsoft starts in a position of weakness with Albany. However, fundamentally, we're still talking about productivity suites here, and Microsoft does those very well. (Say what you will about Office -- you can't argue with success.) The question becomes whether old-school Office battling it out with Google Apps in new, online territory will sweep to victory or eventually succumb to a new power the way old Britain gave up the ghost and handed victory to the young United States.

Of course, to some extent, it doesn't really matter -- right now -- who wins the online app wars. The vast majority of users still installs applications on the desktop and probably will for some time to come. Plus, software battles don't have to be a zero-sum game, although they often seem to be; both Microsoft and Google could carry on for quite a long time competing in the online apps space.

In this battle, the empire is striking back. Maybe someday, some history nerds will dress in costume as Google and Microsoft execs and developers and reenact the "battle" of online apps. That's something that we would definitely not get out of bed at 5 a.m. to see.

What's your take on Microsoft's hosted apps strategy? Have any experience with Google Apps? Shoot us a line at [email protected].

Posted by Lee Pender on April 22, 2008