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.
How the Latest Microsoft Technology Is Out-Googling Google
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.