When people talk about Google ruling the roost, it’s common to compare them to Microsoft. I’m an old guy, and I remember Microsoft as our overlord. So I find that comparison pretty darn funny.

But if you haven’t been doing this since, oh, call it 2005… That doesn’t necessarily mean much to you. Microsoft? They’re not anybody special any more. Certainly they’re not unusually evil. They’re not especially powerful, even. Yahoo is probably as strong as current Microsoft, and Yahoo doesn’t intimidate people into anything.

What was Old Microsoft like that was so scary?

Old Boys

Microsoft specialized in a few specific things:

  • Packaging and contract-writing rivals to their core businesses (OS, Office) out of existence, often through straight-up illegal pricing.
  • Leveraging their OS and Office monopoly to bundle other products, killing rivals with ‘free’ included versions (e.g. Internet Explorer, leveraged to support their web servers, back when those cost money.)
  • Suing rivals out of existence, often just because it was more convenient than competing
  • Cozying up to small companies, hiring their primary engineers, cloning their product and folding it into Windows — even if the product was stupid in the first place. Amusingly, that’s how we got Clippy.
  • Out-marketing technically superior companies, killing them because they’d been outbid in the marketing channels.
  • Putting in MS-only optimizations into the OS and/or specifically putting in “screw this one other company” sabotage. Remember, everybody had to use Windows back then.

Google is a “Good Old Boys” style company like GM — “what’s good for General Motors is good for America.” In fact, you’ll literally hear Google folks say things like, “what’s good for the Internet is good for Google.”

Now, Google is an ad company and they act like it. But they’re in a wide-open space, they can literally make lots more money by getting more people using the Internet, and nothing they care about is particularly competitive. Blue ocean all the way.

This is much, much better than “carpet bomb potential competitors, eat young companies that might do well, sue and market everybody into oblivion” old Microsoft. Microsoft had a weird persecuted streak that translated into them being the big dog but believing mauling any little dog that they thought might get big.

Which meant if you were a little dog back in the days of packaged software, you had to get past a paranoid mortal rival (Microsoft) just to sell your software — everybody used Windows, so you had to deploy to a Microsoft platform. And I promise you, they played very rough sabotaging some of their competitors with the OS. There was no digital distribution platform. There wasn’t a browser you’d want to deploy to. Just the desktop.

Microsoft didn’t come down on everybody, but when they came down, they came down hard. You were always praying the they didn’t see your market as too profitable or too strategic. Only the biggest companies could fight them — and even the biggest companies couldn’t usually win, just fight longer before they sank.

Paul Graham (figuratively) sang a lovely little ode to the end of that era when he noticed it was over.