The conventional wisdom is that Microsoft and Google are completely different in how they approach the market.
Microsoft these days is thought by many as a stodgy "has-been" company with an obsolete business that renders it incapable of overcoming its own internal politics to leverage innovations from the lab and transform them into actual shipping products.
Google, on the other hand, is considered a radical and experimental company willing to try everything. They're more nimble and innovative than the competition, and they succeed. Google out-engineers other companies and leverages its openness, cross-platform product strategy and a bias favoring data-intensive technologies.
In this column, I'm going to bring attention to a broad set of products and services that have been developed by Microsoft recently—products with names like Snapshots, MobileFusion, Xiaoice, Send, Bridge and NewsCast.
If you believe the "conventional wisdom" about these two companies, you may be shocked to hear how Googly some of Microsoft's latest products are. Or maybe you'll be even more shocked to hear how the new generation of Microsoft initiatives is actually vintage Microsoft.
Embrace and Extend
Back in the day when I edited Windows Magazine, Microsoft was an aggressive, nimble company capable of overturning software category leaders.
It's hard to imagine now, but there was a time when Microsoft Word was an underdog that faced multiple competitors, including one everybody thought was invincible: WordPerfect.
The reason is that before the mainstreaming of Windows in the early 1990s when MS-DOS still reigned supreme, WordPerfect existed for years as a cross-platform favorite of writers— professionals, students, businesspeople and others. Most of those operating systems still had command-line interfaces. Lacking a GUI or WYSIWYG interface, WordPerfect evolved a powerful macro language, which many users heavily relied upon.
As users were converting from DOS to Windows in the early '90s, most planned to stick with WordPerfect because their precious macros formed part of their muscle memory for writing. As we all know—old habits die hard.
Microsoft successfully destroyed WordPerfect's lead with a two-part strategy. First, they copied or reverse-engineered or simulated WordPerfect's macro system, enabling the macro-addicted to use MS Word as if it was WordPerfect. Then, they made sure Word had a better graphical interface, taking better advantage of the mouse and on-screen elements.
This is the strategy that Microsoft made famous in the '90s. It was given a name by The New York Times' John Markoff: "embrace, extend and extinguish."
The idea was that, instead of resisting a competing standard, Microsoft would embrace it, extend it, and then by virtue of its dominant market share in desktop operating systems or office suite software, "extinguish" the competitor.
Don't look now, but Microsoft's old strategy is back. At least that's one way to look at it. Another way is to look at it is that the new Microsoft is being extremely innovative, open, cross-platform and in some cases big-data intensive. You know, like Google.
How Microsoft Is Out-Googling Google
Google unveiled on May 28 a new killer feature for Google Now on Android. In a nutshell, Google Now would be able to harvest information from whatever might currently exist on the screen of an Android phone to provide contextual information for Google Now queries.
For example, a user might be using a streaming music app and listening to a song by Taylor Swift. A simple gesture brings up the Google Now query and the user could ask: "Where is her next concert?" Google would determine that "her" referred to Taylor Swift by reading the content currently in view.
Google calls it "Now On Tap," and its practical use is expected to appear gradually, as developers must write to Google's Now On Tap API to enable the feature.
On Aug. 20, however, Microsoft came out with a feature for Bing that works very much like Now On Tap. However, it doesn't require developers to support the API. It works out of the box on all apps. The feature is called Microsoft Snapshots and the first platform supported is—wait for it—Android.
Microsoft has "embraced" the Now On Tap idea and "extended" it to work on everything right away—without developer buy in.
It sounds like something Google might do, but in fact, it's exactly what Microsoft used to do.