Google vs Microsoft, deja vu all over again

Had Santayana been a business guru, he might have noted how business’ obsession with the now guarantees they will repeat the past. A wonderful article by Steve Lohr in the NYT today (Microsoft and Google Grapple for Supremacy) put the battle for the internet in the context of historical battles: for the automobile market (Ford vs GM) and for retailing (Sears vs Montgomery Ward) in the early 1900s.
As Lohr points out:

…perhaps even more significant, those who came out on top, judging from history, had two more specific attributes. They were the companies, according to business historians, that proved able to adapt to change instead of being prisoners of past success. And in their glory days, these corporate champions were magnets for the best and brightest people.

Interestingly, the first case, of “not being prisoners of the past” seems to be both the reason why nervous executives avoid history and, at the same time, remains prisoners of their own.

The second case, winning the war for talent, may be misleading as it’s a real chicken-and-egg issue. Lohr suggests the scientist Kai-fu Lee’s migration from M’soft to Google is a sign of Google’s winning the war for talent, similar to when Robert E. Wood left Montgomery Ward for Sears. The same thing happened at Ford. One of Henry Ford’s top executives, Knudsen, went to GM, where he was responsible for many of the manufacturing innovations that enabled GMs rise.

But it was not Knudsen’s arrival at GM that signaled the turning point. It was his departure from Ford . A subtle difference, yes, but a crucial one.

Knudsen left because Henry Ford stopped listening to his lieutenants–who were pushing for different car models and more robust manufacturing (two other top executives left as well, Harold Wills and Norval Hawkins). Did Kai-fu Lee leave because Google looked like more fun, or because M’soft stopped listening? If you focus on his arrival, it looks like Google is winning; if you focus on his departure, it looks like Microsoft has already lost. A subtle difference.

History has a lot to say, but Lohr ends the article by asking historian Richard Tedlow what insight history might provide into the future: “I’m a historian,” said Mr. Tedlow of Harvard. “Ask me in 10 years and I’ll tell you why what happened was inevitable.”