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Microsoft vs Yahoo

April 2008

As I write, Microsoft are trying to buy Yahoo, although in the slippery world of takeovers it may all be over by the time you read this. However, it is interesting to consider why Bill Gates wants Yahoo, as it demonstrates the way the internet is going.

In the olden days, the only sensible way to use software was to buy it (usually from Microsoft) on a CD and put it on you computer. Then the invention of broadband made it easy to operate someone else’s software on a distant computer; you have probably already used just such a system; last time you bought a book from Amazon, for example.

This has led to the development of free online versions of the programmes that Microsoft have been selling us for so long; Google, for example, have created what they call Googledocs, with the effect that you can now, in theory, manage without Microsoft Word, provided you have a decent broadband connection.

You might not think that Oldies are likely to need such high powered stuff. Think again; it will change the way we all use computers, and that before too long.

For example, if you help run any committee, the odds are you will know the headaches created by emailing a document around for comments. You write it, and email a copy to three others for their thoughts (already there are four copies in existence). Each of the others makes some changes and sends new versions back to you (now there are seven copies and at least four versions). You have to create an eighth copy to include the changes, which is a tricky job, and then you probably send it round again, and the whole process repeats.

However, if you use Googledocs, there is only ever one copy. It works like this: you write the committee minutes online (it feels like using a basic version of Word). Google stores for you and sends each of your colleagues an email alerting them; if they click on a link in the email, they can see the document online and make any changes they want (note: there is still only one copy).

You can look in every so often (from anywhere in the world), see what changes have been suggested, and decide to ignore or include them. Eventually, you draw stumps, and there’s still only one copy of the document, now in final form. You can then distribute it any way you want.

It’s actually not quite as simple as I’ve made it sound, as Googledocs is new and needs improving, but soon it will be terrific, and anyway you get the idea.

What worries Mr Gates of Microsoft is that the long term effect will be that there may soon be no need for you to buy much software from him. Most of the facilities he charges you for will be available online, free, and being constantly improved.

What’s even worse for Gates is that this is just the sort of thing that Google is very good at, certainly better than Microsoft, and it makes Microsoft look, well, rather old fashioned. Who would have thought that would ever happen?

Yahoo, on the other hand, do know how to play this game, how attract people to their websites and how to develop neat online services; their email system is already the market leader. So, Gates sees buying them as a way into this new online world without having to work out how to do it for himself.

What does it mean for Oldie readers? Not much at the moment, but in due course it will mean that both Google and Microsoft (or Micro-hoo?) will be fighting hard to provide us with better and better online services. Watch this cyberspace.