Microsoft sues to block Google mainland hire

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 21 July, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 21 July, 2005, 12:00am

Software giant Microsoft is taking court action to stop a former executive from taking a top mainland job with Google, a move that highlights the growing competition between the two companies as well as the shortage of top-end engineering talent in China.

Microsoft filed the suit on Tuesday in Washington state against Lee Kai-fu, former corporate vice-president of the company's natural interactive services division.

Google had earlier announced Dr Lee would lead its new product research and development centre in China, which is scheduled to open in the third quarter.

In a statement, Microsoft said Dr Lee's hiring was a breach of his 'confidentiality and non-compete' agreement with Microsoft.

Google was also named in the suit.

'As a senior executive, Dr Lee has direct knowledge of Microsoft's trade secrets concerning search technologies and China business strategies,' Microsoft said.

'He has accepted a position focused on the same set of technologies and strategies for a direct competitor in egregious violation of his explicit contractual obligations.'

Dr Lee founded Microsoft Research China in the late 1990s, and previously worked for Apple Computer as vice-president of the company's interactive media group.

It is not unusual for prominent engineers to switch companies, especially those with experience in China, where both Microsoft and Google are seeking to boost their market presence.

Gong Li, former China research and development chief at Sun Microsystems, recently joined Microsoft to run the firm's new internet portal MSN China, which went online in May.

Google is under increasing pressure in China from domestic internet search engines such as Baidu. The market has been waiting for Google to cement its China plans since taking a stake in Baidu last year.

But competition between Google and Microsoft extends far beyond China, with Google rolling out a slew of new services in recent months, including a desktop search function, which threatens Microsoft on its home turf.

Last year, California-based Google opened an office in Kirkland, Washington - just down the road from Microsoft. The move was widely perceived as a bid to recruit Microsoft workers.

'If [Kirkland] is not our fastest growing site, it's very close to our fastest growing site, and frankly it's simply because the talent's so good,' chief executive Eric Schmidt told the Washington Technology Alliance in May.

Other defectors from Microsoft to Google include Mark Lucovsky, a founding member of the team that created Windows NT, and Joe Beda, a lead developer on Microsoft's future operating system dubbed Longhorn.