But wait, there's more. Let's look at another example.
Google has been working hard on an ambitious program to enable 3D mapping from a mobile device. It's called Project Tango.
The technology is amazing and uses a combination of blisteringly fast rendering hardware and serious software crunching. The result is that a Tango-enabled device can generate a 3D model of any physical space in real time, which is useful for augmented-reality applications, gaming, bringing sight to the blind and a hundred other powerful uses.
The project has qualities that match the Microsoft reputation, rather than that of Google. It's a broad industry effort that will ultimately require heavy buy-in from OEM partners. It's been delayed. And it's probably going to be expensive and limited in the short term to vertical applications.
Then, suddenly this week, Microsoft unveiled a research project that's vaguely comparable to Tango. It's called MobileFusion
It's like Tango in that it uses a smartphone to do 3D mapping. There are two distinct differences. One is that it doesn't require a special phone. (Microsoft researchers are using an Apple iPhone, but the technology could easily be applied to Android phones.) And the second is that it doesn't map 3D spaces. Instead, it maps 3D objects, rendering them in real time and, then, creating a 3D printer-ready file.
The technology behind MobileFusion is all software, and the innovation is doing something that used to require special equipment and making it happen with existing mainstream hardware. Even more impressive is that the data crunching takes place on the phone itself, not in the cloud. However, MobileFusion isn't a product right now, but a research project.
MobileFusion isn't a competitor to Project Tango. They do different things. But you'll note that Google's approach to 3D mapping with a phone looks more like the Microsoft reputation for mobile device design, while Microsoft's approach looks like Google's modus operandi.
OK, let's talk about yet another example. The future of human-computer interaction is clearly going to be dominated by virtual assistant applications, such as Google Now, Cortana, Siri, Alexa and now Facebook's Messenger entrant, M.
The back-end capabilities of these virtual assistants are vitally important. But also important are the front-end interfaces, which succeed or fail to the extent that people accept them as "people." On this score, you might think that Siri is the leader in human-like responses because she cracks jokes, makes chit-chat and speaks with colloquialisms.
In fact, however, Microsoft is the leader in creating a human-like virtual assistant. I'm not talking about Cortana, but the company's Chinese product, called Xiaoice, which means "Little Bing."
According to The New York Times
, Xiaoice is used as a virtual friend by millions of Chinese people. Users reportedly hold long conversations with Xiaoice, confide in her and some even tell her, "I love you."
Microsoft made her very human-like by doing two very Googly things. First, they mine the Chinese social Internet to find out how real Chinese people actually respond to questions and interact in conversations. Then, they collect users' responses and remember them. So the software gets to know the users personally and interacts accordingly.
These three very innovative initiatives are just part of how Microsoft is out-Googling Google. But there's even more.
While Google is going all out with its Android One initiative to somehow drive the price of a smartphone down to $50 in India and other emerging markets, Microsoft is already selling a phone there for $20.
Microsoft is reinventing text-based communication with an innovative hybrid of email and text called Microsoft Send
The company is creating a news app called Microsoft NewsCast
that looks like something Google would create. A very convincing computer voice reads the news to you.
Microsoft is using an open-source approach to make it easier for iOS developers to port their apps to Windows with something called Windows Bridge for iOS
Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying anything about the future success of Microsoft, or the relative merits or competitiveness of Microsoft versus Google.
What I am saying is that Microsoft's actions of late must force us to change the conventional wisdom about what kind of company Microsoft is now.
Yes, they're still able to leverage their old winning strategy. But in many ways, Microsoft is acting a lot more like Google now than Google is.