Not too long ago, Google Inc seemed little more than a nuisance to Microsoft Corp's software domination.
No more. As Google rapidly rolls out new products, the company best known for its wildly popular search engine is muscling into the software giant's turf, including its stronghold: The computer desktop.
Analysts say Google's aggressive ambitions could pose a formidable threat to Microsoft because it gets to the heart of what drives Microsoft's dominance: Its control of the user-experience through the Windows operating system.
If successful, Google could help refashion computing, making people less reliant on storing information on the Microsoft-powered PC on their desk and more dependent on free Web-based e-mail and search functions that can be accessed anywhere from any device regardless of the operating system.
Under such circumstances, the risk for Microsoft is that the computer desktop as we know it could cease to exist, said David Garrity, an analyst with Caris & Co. The question, Garrity said, is whether computer buyers may one day decide that they no longer even need a Microsoft operating system.
The two companies are already battling it out on fronts including Web search, free e-mail and better ways for searching individual computers. Analysts say that's evidence Microsoft should -- and likely is -- taking Google much more seriously.
"They'd be mad not to," said Niki Scevak with Jupiter Research.
Marissa Mayer, Google's director of consumer Web products, said the company's goal is to organize information and make it universally accessible, and that goes far beyond search.
But she downplays the suggestion that Google's tools could eventually overtake Microsoft's ubiquitous software, saying the company doesn't currently have such plans but "it's hard to speculate" what the future might bring. Chief executive Eric Schmidt has, however, ruled out developing a Google browser to compete with Microsoft's dominant Internet Explorer.
The Google-Microsoft competition is good news for consumers because it means more choices and better products.
For instance, Google's expansion into e-mail already has forced Microsoft and others to dramatically increase free storage. Analysts say it's also prodding Microsoft to improve products customers have long complained about.
As it became clear that Google and other search engines were increasingly gaining control over people's time online, Microsoft's MSN online division rapidly began developing its own search technology. Microsoft had previously outsourced that job.
Web search isn't the only place where Microsoft is playing catch-up. In June, Microsoft launched an Internet browser toolbar that blocks pop-up ads and enables search, years after Google.
And after Google announced plans for Gmail, a free e-mail service touting massive amounts of memory, Microsoft said it would boost free memory on its Hotmail accounts. Adam Sohn, a director with MSN, said to expect more Hotmail improvements soon, but he wouldn't provide details.
Microsoft also has promised its own system for searching desktop computers, responding to frustrations over how difficult it is to find things like e-mails and family photos on increasingly cluttered computers. Google launched its desktop search product last month and said users should expect more improvements to that product.