Competition is a wonderful thing. It encourages innovation, keeps prices in check, and it brings to our world new and exciting products that create benefits to humanity. But competition and innovation don’t always work for everyone, and all too often the consequences of rapid product development are unnecessary risks to society. And it is this backdrop that provides an interesting, if not fascinating, twist to a new battle between Internet search giant Google and software behemoth Microsoft.
It seems hardly surprising that Microsoft has announced plans to counter the threat posed by Google documents and spreadsheets. Google’s entry into the office productivity market is clever strategy. For years now, Microsoft has been the leader in this lucrative marketplace, holding what many believe to be an unassailable monopoly. Previous attempts to establish a breach-head into the office applications market by various competitors has met with little or no success. Microsoft, for example, have no doubt kept a close watch on Open Office, a suite of office productivity applications which, despite receiving rave critical reviews and being totally free, has caused an insignificant number of customers to shift their allegiance. With this in mind, Google’s announcement of their release of Google Docs could easily have been taken lightly by Microsoft; and it appeared for some time that is exactly what happened. After all, Docs was released as a beta version in September 2006 and Microsoft’s response has been almost 12 months in the making. But Microsoft knows that Google is Google. With a big brand, lots of customers, and huge developer resources at their disposal, the search giant can make things happen. Which is precisely why Microsoft has responded to Google’s web-only offering by creating Office Live Workspace, a program that works with Microsoft Office products allowing people to view, store, and share Office documents online. To many people, this product is a welcome innovation. Mobile workers, students, and travelers will undoubtedly benefit from the increased flexibility that Internet based storage provides, without the arduous task of migrating their Office documents to Google Docs. So what then could be the downside in such rapid development of Internet based software?
The risk to consumers comes from a security threat from Cross Site Scripting (XSS) attacks which are instigated when a line of code, placed on a malicious but otherwise normal web page, captures a person’s cookie details and potentially gives the hacker access to user names and passwords. A recent report on Google Blogoscoped reveals how such an attack, created in a controlled environment, allowed a ‘hacker’ limited access to another person’s Google account – including Google Docs. Whilst Google are aware of the problem and continue to issue security warnings to webmasters, the fact that a person’s Google Docs area was potentially compromised gives web surfers reason to be concerned. It may also give Microsoft the opportunity to take the high ground on security, and some degree of comfort in their decision to respond slower than usual to a competitive threat.
Indeed competition is a wonderful thing – usually. But it appears that Google’s rush to innovate, to steal a march on a competitor, to bring a product to the market quickly, has shown the dark side of innovation. It’s the dark side where privacy is not paramount and where security is not treated with the highest priority. Unless Google places the privacy and well-being of their customers first, the future for the Internet will be cause for grave concerns.