In Apple vs. Google, Microsoft's a Pawn

The enemy of my enemy is my search engine

Remember when Apple used to hate Microsoft?

Remember when Microsoft was worth hating?

The news that Apple might switch the default search engines on iPhones from Google to Microsoft's Bing, first reported by Bloomberg News, shows how the balance of power has changed in the technology world.

It wasn't long ago that Microsoft was the solitary power in a unipolar world, having fended off Netscape and other Internet challengers to dominate the software world.

In 1997, Steve Jobs, newly returned to Apple as its interim CEO, had to beg his longtime rival, Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates, for a cash infusion and a promise to keep developing Microsoft Office for the Mac.

Now, in the age of Web and iPhone apps, Google is the heavyweight, and Microsoft the supplicant. (None of the companies have commented on the talks, which Bloomberg characterized as in their early stages.)

Apple has long partnered with Google, using Google as its default search engine in the Mac's Safari Web browser and iPhones. And until last year, Google CEO Eric Schmidt served on Apple's board.

But with Google's entry into the smartphone business with its Android operating system, the two companies found themselves increasingly in conflict, and Schmidt resigned. With the introduction of the Google-designed Nexus One phone, the companies are competing directly for space in consumers' pockets.

Both recently pursued AdMob, a mobile-advertising company, and Lala, an online-music startup, with AdMob going to Google and Lala going to Apple.

In the midst of this new rivalry, Microsoft comes in as a supplicant. Its Bing search engine remains an also-ran, despite a deal to run Yahoo's Web search. Placement on the iPhone would give it a valuable entry into the world of mobile search. While iPhone's market share is still small, its users are remarkably heavy consumers of mobile websites. (Meanwhile, Microsoft's Windows Mobile smartphones have done little to push consumers to use Microsoft Web services.)

The negotiations may fall apart. But the fact that Microsoft has become a plaything in Apple and Google's Web battles is telling. You don't need a search engine to find how the mighty have fallen.

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