It’s the year that Windows Vista got the cold shoulder from customers, and Microsoft almost had to raise a finger to explain how such a thing could have happened.

As the annus horribilis goes, this is not too bad: Vista will succeed eventually and the boring utilitarians (most of us) will continue to look strangely on the Linux rebels and the Apple narcissists as a bunch of annoying finger-waggers. Worrying about Windows’ success or failure nowadays is a bit like wondering whether the world’s thirsty will drink Coke or Pepsi in 2008 because we know one thing for sure - they will have to drink something.

If anything should annoy Microsoft, it is Google, which every year appears to rise serenely above such low-life concerns as persuading people to buy programs for – yes – real money.

Google is just cooler than Microsoft, more charismatic, more mysterious, and has a zeitgeist feel that Bill Gate’s outfit hasn’t basked in for nearly 20 years. Which other Valley company would bother to put a huge T-Rex skeleton on its campus lawn, a predatory statement of intent that is so apt it’s surprising the company doesn’t put those mighty jaws on its corporate logo.

Google has spent the last half decade assembling its blend of search and Web 2.0 applications from bits and bobs it could find, mostly on the cheap. It’s bought lots of add-ons for its core applications (Google Earth enablers, VoIP and video conferencing), as well as occasional content stores of epoch-defining prominence such as YouTube, and of course security and filtering featured in 2007 in the form of its buy of Postini.

And with its $3.1 billion wooing of DoubleClick, it will buy itself relationships with every major advertiser in the US and beyond, raising worries that it is setting itself up to be an Internet middleman like none yet seen. People used to worry about Windows controlling people’s access to the Internet, but this is one window that beats mere operating systems hands down. People don’t turn on PCs to use operating systems, after all.

It is even moving to do the same in mobility by dreaming up an Android even as it dips its toes into next-generation wireless infrastructure. The Internet might be a digital wild west, but there is no company that knows more about its dark wildness than Google.

Google is a beast with T-Rex teeth, while Microsoft looks more and more like one with empty gums, and yet I seriously doubt anyone at Microsoft gives a fig about any of this. In fact, quite the opposite. At last it has a viable rival, one that doesn’t yet hurt its bottom line, and one that draws fire from its annoying power to cling on inside almost everyone’s PCs whether they like it or not. It used to be an Axis of evil with one name on it, now two’s company.

But is Google as evil as Microsoft was once supposed to be? There are complex data privacy concerns about Google, but you could say the same of any company that turns out to be successful in the Internet age.

Google’s real problem is its Jesuitical cult secrecy. It is, by many measures, the most important computer company in the world and yet we know almost nothing about how it works from the inside, what it does with all its intellectual power, what it is cooking up for the world beyond some obvious acquisitions, or how it actually thinks about things. Google doesn’t need visions because it has actions.

I’m told its office looks like anyone else’s, with the same cubicle habitats and water cooler socialising. But its campus is more of a high school while Microsoft’s, we can now see, is the industry’s college of further education, full of earnest guys in tasselled shoes and pleated chinos.

Google’s success in the last year – and in the next year no doubt – is its charm. Microsoft lost that long ago, as it disappeared into its compound and appointed a man detractors unkindly refer to as an ape to be its daddy. But I know which one of the two I’ll be watching carefully in the next year.