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Whom Should We Hate Now?

Wednesday, 19 May 2010 | 1:42 PM ET

The funny business of managing public perception.

Today I'm checking in with friends on Facebook and Googling for news...all on my iPhone.

Three big products and services from three big companies.

I'm not sure I trust any of them. Just because, you know, they're big. Everywhere. Watching me. Using me.

Microsoft
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Microsoft

Twelve years ago, Microsoft went from being the company which revolutionized personal technology to the company we loved to hate.

It got too big, it was accused of being a bully, then forced to spend billions defending itself.

What does Microsoft have to show for it?

Well, it still has $58 billion in sales, about equal to Apple and Google and Facebook combined.

But, as a consumer, I mostly think of Microsoft as the punchline in Apple ads. Hapless PC doesn't stand a chance against the cool Mac.

Microsoft-hating, however, is yesterday's news.

Which company is taking its place? This isn't a tech question. I am not the tech reporter (that would be Jim Goldman). This is a question of perception by consumers. Which company is starting to make you uncomfortable?

Is it Apple? Apple is arguably the most successful tech company, consumer company, gadget company, however you want to describe it, since the launch of the iPhone in 2007. Actually, that's the year MacWorld declared, "It's official: Apple is the New Microsoft".

Three years later, there are grumblings about Apple's practices (see Adobe). Apple has ratcheted up the lawsuits alleging patent infringement. Some think the company may have exerted undue pressure on police to investigate the case of the lost/stolen iPhone. Peter Cohan writes this month in AOL's Daily Finance, "While I think Apple CEO Steve Jobs is letting his unhinged bully side out in public more than ever, American antitrust law doesn't care about his tantrums, it just cares that Apple may be 'tying' -- an illegal technique of using power in one market to gain a monopoly in another. And that's just as illegal for Apple in 2010 as it was for Microsoft in the 1990s."

Is Google the new Microsoft? Google is certainly as omnipresent on the internet as Microsoft has been in desktops. Like Microsoft, Google has had mixed success moving beyond its core business. In an article called, "Is Google the New Microsoft?" InfoWorld says Google Buzz didn't generate much positive buzz when it debuted earlier this year, as users may have been surprised by its openness ("Imagine if a wife discovering that her husband emails and chats with an old girlfriend a ton"). This month Google admittedit "accidentally" collected data from people using Wi-Fi networks for years while it's camera-topped "Street View" vehicles drove around mapping neighborhoods. Some say Googlers appear insulated, a criticism they used to hear at Microsoft. "They really need to get out more," says one blogger who is a Google fan (a fan!).

Or is Facebook the new Microsoft? The social networking site is expected to reach a half billion users in the next few weeks, yet rarely has any internet company been so consistently criticized over a perceived lack of concern about customers. The Wall Street Journalreports the public backlash over privacy concerns has led to much navel-gazing inside Facebook, where a still-young CEO appears to have different ideas about what should be public/private than many users. Mark Zuckerberg's alleged emails from SEVEN YEARS AGO were even made public this month as potential evidence that he doesn't really care about you.

Should we hate any of these companies? Maybe we should understand that they've all done great things for us, and the occasional misstep is to be expected. But do you instead feel like some of them--maybe all--have gotten just a little too big for their internet britches? It's only human nature. We love people and companies on the way up. Once they make it to the top, any hint that they're throwing their weight around and, bingo! Expect the public to treat you like Bill Gates. Of course, Bill Gates is worth $53 billion and out there saving lives. We should all be so vilified.

Let me know in the comments section which, if any, of these companies merits the new Microsoft mantle.

Questions? Comments? Funny Stories? Email funnybusiness@cnbc.com

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  • Based in Los Angeles, Jane Wells is a CNBC business news reporter and also writes the Funny Business blog for CNBC.com.

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