Faced with Google's rampant success and dominance of the online world, legions of experts have tried over the years to dissect what makes it such a unique and powerful company.
Is it because its engineers famously get 20% of their time to develop their own projects? Is it the influence of the 'triumvirate' of top executives? Or is it that Google simply understands the future better than the rest of the world?
Ask Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer why he thinks Google is the internet's most powerful company, however, and he'll offer a straightforward alternative: it got there first.
Speaking at the SMX West conference in California on Tuesday, the man in charge of rival search engine Bing said that Google's success today was not tangibly linked to the company's culture, but simply spun out of the fact that it became successful in web search before its rivals.
"The number one thing that Google benefits from in search is that they did it right, first," he said. "There's a value to incumbency." "You can ascribe these things to things like culture, but it's never clear which came first - incumbency or culture," he added. [emphasis added]
Playing up Microsoft's own culture and staff, Ballmer admitted that the software giant was late to produce a mature, usable search engine technology - despite launching the first MSN Search website as long ago as 1998. But with Bing slowly growing market share in the United States, he said that his eventual goal was to become the dominant engine.
"We've got great long-term optimism," he said. "Tomorrow's goal is to gain a few points, a tenth here, a tenth there - just keep working and working."
His comments about culture will be seen as a sideswipe at Google, which has built a reputation based in part on its attempt to build a culture diametrically opposed to Microsoft's.
Let's take Mr. Ballmer's statements at face value. Google's being first with a good product in the search category is the reason that other search engines have been unable to wrest that top spot from them.
I get it. That explains why Lotus and WordPerfect are the dominant entries in their segments, I suppose. Oh. Wait. Reverse that, as Willy Wonka might say.
More likely, this is Steve's attempt to explain away Bing's lack of a knockout punch. It seems that this doesn't happen to Microsoft very often - Quicken, anyone? - so they're not terribly adept at explaining it away.