Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2005/07/29/ms_google_phoney_war/

MS nixes Google hire

Phoney war

By Andrew Orlowski

Posted in Financial News, 29th July 2005 10:21 GMT

Microsoft has succeeded in preventing the head of its search research team jumping ship to Google. Google has been hiring several well-paid employees to add to its collection of PhDs and old farts accumulating over in Mountain View.

Microsoft, however, drew the line at the hiring of Kai-Fu Lee, a VP at Redmond and alumini of Apple and SGI.

But the hiring has caught the fevered imaginations of parts of the press as a superpower in panic - agitated beyond comfort by the emergence of an economic competitor. A CNET editor, perhaps eager to be in line when the next batch of embedded reporters are due to be sent off to the frontline, trumpeted the news with the headline "Microsoft, Google duke it out for China".

A bit melodramatic, you might think - but wait till you read the lawsuit. We'll come to the particulars in a moment.

The nut(s) of the case is that Lee had signed a standard no-compete agreement which Google, which he breached by joining Google before the cooling off period had expired.

That's pretty clear cut, and Microsoft knows this. In 2000, Microsoft lost around £3m ($5m) in an unsuccessful attempt to poach a rival from a company, and get him to begin work before the no-compete agreement had expired. The employee was Juha Christensen, and the plaintiff was Psion, then the largest shareholder in the Symbian venture, a consortium of phone vendors who'd decided to pool their resources and create a competent, cheap and acccountable rival to Microsoft.

Christensen was sent on "gardening leave" when the High Court ruled in Psion's favor.

(A strange footnote to this case is that when Christensen finally joined Microsoft, he was bidden from mentioning his previous employer's name in public. Whether this was a part of the no-compete agreement, or simply a straightforward case of paranormal possession of the sound system he used on each occasion, we have never to this day been able to prove. Despite persistent questioning over the years.)

So Microsoft lost the case badly. However Juha, who had been hired for his apparently supernatural schmooze talents with phone OEMs in the formation of Symbian, turned out not to be the saviour of Microsoft's phone business that his new employers hoped, and four years later Juha still hadn't snagged a major phone OEM for Redmond. Then again, the consortium turned out to be not so much an equal partnership as a case of Nokia left holding the baby, as Nokia's "equal partners" either imploded or looked the other way.

Microsoft has also tried mass recruitment from a rival before.

In the early 1990s it attempted to hire away as many employees from tools rival Borland as it could. Over thirty made the journey North, leading to the formation of an informal "Dead Borland Society" on a rocky outcrop in Redmond. This too went to court with an eventual cash settlement in favor of Borland - "no wrong doing", "I never touched her, guv" - but for Borland, this was scant compensation for the loss of the architect of Turbo C++ and then Delphi, Anders Heljsberg, who defected with his team.

But yesterday the court declined the florid arguments of both parties, and Microsoft's no-compete clause prevailed.

How?

Hands off, he's my PR prize

As we mentioned earlier the court filings are exceptionally theatrical, and pointless. For its part, Microsoft explained that Lee was "deeply involved in Microsoft's efforts to expand its business in China and learned Microsoft's confidential strategic plans regarding that crucial new market".

Google, with its hands already on Lee, pictured itself the very model of innocence.

"Lee has not disclosed any of Microsoft's to Google. Google has told Lee repeatedly not to disclose Microsoft's confidences")

(This isn't the only part of the brief that sounds like a Victorian English novel).

Google goes on to claim that Microsoft's very accusation that Lee would spill the beans "seeks to impune his good reputation".

Which is weird, because two paragraphs later, Google's lawyers go on to impugn his good reputation themselves. And they don't spare the horses.

"Lee is not a search expert," they state, pretty baldly. "throughout his career ... Lee was an executive who managed groups developing technologies in the area of speech engines and enhancing the user interface." All his triumphs were someone else's work, they insist. And Lee didn't know anything about the commercial sphere, either.

Hey, welcome to Google, you phoney.

In fact the whole lawsuit reads like a work of fiction, and deserves to be forgetten fairly quickly.

Two questions can't be, though - why did Microsoft push back now, with Lee? And how significant is this hiring spree? Is Google trophy hunting or are these make-or-break hires?

The latter is a very good question, and it's worth looking at how much value media-visible rocket scientists have contributed. Recent evidence suggests not.

Only last week HP dispensed with the services of "legend" Alan Kay, who was let go with along of six of his team. Kay has been developing an object oriented "programming environment" aimed at young children for a decade, and yet it still looks like something 5-year olds themselves would have left behind in the sandpit. HP won't miss him.

Google is supposed to be the new "operating system", according to its most ambitious shareholders. But we can't see Google's motley collection of supposed "OS experts" ranging from at one end of the scale DEC veteran and NT kernel guy Mark Lucovsky, to at the other end a scripting guy called Adam Bosworth, whose claim to fame lies on er, building DHTML into IE4, posing a threat to anyone. These really are trophies looking for a shelf.

With rather more serious intent, we notice, Google has been hiring quite carefully in the lobbying sector, hiring neocon headbanger Dan Senor, a hardcore Washington operator.

Both Google and Microsoft are prominent lobbyists and their intentions are probably better gleaned from seeing how many smokers they hire, rather than how many PhDs. Buttering up the regulators is both companies' top priority. It simply suits them both to pretend that the "hiring war" is more than about bruised egos. ®

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