A CEREBRAL computer-scientist-turned-executive, Eric E. Schmidt has spent much of his career competing uphill against Microsoft, quietly watching it outflank, outmaneuver or simply outgun most of its rivals.
At Sun Microsystems, where he was chief technology officer, Mr. Schmidt looked on as Scott G. McNealy, the company’s chairman, railed against Microsoft and its leaders, Steven A. Ballmer and Bill Gates, as “Ballmer and Butthead.” During a four-year stint as chief executive of Novell, Mr. Schmidt routinely opined that it was folly for any Microsoft rival to “moon the giant,” as he put it; all that would do, he argued, was incite Microsoft’s wrath.
Then, six years ago, Mr. Schmidt snared the C.E.O. spot at Google and today finds himself at the helm of one of computing’s most inventive and formidable players, the runaway leader in Internet search and online advertising. With its ample resources and eye for new markets, Google has begun offering online products that strike at the core of Microsoft’s financial might: popular computing tools like word processing applications and spreadsheets.
The growing confrontation between Google and Microsoft promises to be an epic business battle. It is likely to shape the prosperity and progress of both companies, and also inform how consumers and corporations work, shop, communicate and go about their digital lives. Google sees all of this happening on remote servers in faraway data centers, accessible over the Web by an array of wired and wireless devices — a setup known as cloud computing. Microsoft sees a Web future as well, but one whose center of gravity remains firmly tethered to its desktop PC software. Therein lies the conflict.