Google And Microsoft – A Changing Of The Guard?

The official opening of Google’s South African headquarters made tech news headlines locally and got many of us geeks, I’m happy to admit, pretty excited. However subsequent media briefings have left some of us a bit frustrated.

Google is an exciting company – arguably the most intriguing company of my generation – and as my generation is want to do, we desire interaction and a sense of connection with the brands we love and admire. Google is no exception. From the start, Google has been about openness, sharing, free stuff and more. Their idealistic mission statement “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful” gets people like me pretty motivated – in fact I’ve said publicly on more than one occasion that Google is the only brand I’d consider ‘selling my entrepreneurial soul‘ to.

Microsoft, on the other hand, has always represented that huge rich company that charged my family and then the businesses I worked for a lot of money for software. As I discovered the open source movement I grew more and more resentful and cynical toward Microsoft. It didn’t take much convincing to get me to switch to applications like Open Office and eventually Mac and OSX. However things have happened at Redmond headquarters in recent times are shifting the software giant in a very different direction. No longer is Microsoft perceived as the big scary monolithic grey monstrosity of the 90′s and early 200′s, and I daresay Google is losing it’s grip on the title of the funky ‘do no evil’ upstart.

But why is this shift happening? Is it just a perception or is Microsoft making a conscious effort to change the game while Google battles the inevitable struggles of being an enormous corporation? Could it be that Microsoft’s almost underdog status in certain areas of modern computing (especially online) stands them in good stead for the future, especially considering the healthy combination of underdog status and massive financial backing they have?

Consider the following events / changes in Microsoft that are formulating very different opinions about them, both in tech and business spheres:

  • Robert Scoble‘s phenomenally successful example of how to change the perception of a brand through ‘corporate’ blogging (whether he was mandated to do so or not is irrelevant – his blog alone changed the way thousands, maybe millions of people regarded Microsoft)
  • Microsoft’s investment in Facebook shows a real commitment to the social Web (Web 2.0)
  • Microsoft’s designs on Yahoo! show a real intention to provide competitive search and advertising platforms for publishers on the Web
  • Microsoft’s increasingly ‘open’ and pro-standards approach – see this post and it’s 600 comments for a taste of how the developer community feels about this
  • The unquestionable success of Microsoft’s entertainment sub-brands Xbox and Zune (though Apple’s iPod still owns the portable multimedia player device market). This is powerful because the direct result is an entire generation of young gaming enthusiasts that no nothing of Microsoft’s history – antitrust trials and penalties, the OS wars, etc. To today’s teenagers Microsoft is the cool brand behind Halo 3. Not bad… (Update: On this point see Valeria Maltoni’s post “14 Year Olds May Think You Are Cool“, ironically enough published at about the same time as I published this post – she just explains the point from a marketing perspective and a whole lot better to boot :))
  • Bill Gates’ impending exit from the company is not important because Bill Gates is a bad leader – on the contrary he’s built up one helluva empire – but rather it’s significant because he signifies for many of us (even just in our minds) the old Microsoft.
  • Ok, so it is presumptuous of me to infer that one interview could make a monumental difference but Guy Kawasaki’s interview of Steve Ballmer at MIX08 recently was a revelation – and I really got the sense a watershed moment for the company. I may be wrong, and perhaps I was just caught up in the hype and PR of the moment, but it was a big moment in my opinion… and many others feel the same

Now consider Google. They’ve grown from strength to strength, added product after product to their stable, innovated, surprised and expanded. But with that kind of success comes a range complications. One of the biggest criticisms (or questions being asked) of Google is around privacy. Let me speak from personal experience – Google sees all my mail, knows what I search for, stores data and documents for me, knows how I shop, who I chat to and what I’ll be doing this week. They know these things about everyone who uses their free services on a daily basis. Is my data at risk? What do they plan to do with it? Are they accountable at all for it? The average man on the street doesn’t have a clue. Few experts do either.

You see as Google grows ever bigger and more influential, with board members and shareholders to report to, they stand to lose so much more. It’s directly proportionate. The more you have the more paranoid you are about losing it. Google is now the leading player on the Web. When you’re in front you’re a target. Microsoft, as I’ve said before, is currently the underdog. They have an inferior search platform, pretty random email services and, well, that’s about it. But suddenly, through products like Silverlight, investments and acquisitions in key Web properties and enough money to give Google a fright if they do buy Yahoo!, they are rising from relative online obscurity and into significance.

Google is more dominant and influential than ever before, but with that comes the need to be a corporation and the danger of being out in front. Microsoft has all the money in the world, a carefully mapped out strategy and an all-new, more-open-than-ever approach to the Web and community that makes it function.

Have your respective perceptions of these two tech giants changed in the last while? Comments?

  • http://www.capitalistpunks.com Rich…!

    Dude, the answer to that is yes. More than I’d ever imagine…and had you swapped Apple for Google I’d agree too. It’s a lot like the very real problem I face at Missing Link everyday; when the novelty wears off, there’s a shit-tonne of expectation left behind. With Microsoft, I never expected anything, now I’m pleasantly surprised…!

  • http://www.conversationagent.com Valeria Maltoni

    “Is Google the New Microsoft?”

    Let’s see, they own a stable of companies and products that can triangulate your every move – DoubleClick, Google Analytics, mail, RSS readers, FeedBurner. Are you starting to feel the room closing down on you, yet?

    Plus, Google does what it will without explanations, nor apparent reasons. My blog was recently downgraded for PR6 to PR4. Why? No clue. If it doesn’t make sense to your customers, it ceases to matter. Google should take that one lesson to heart.

    There is a beautiful thing called competition, and I will do my best to support those who can keep everyone honest.

    Thank you for the link, Mike, and for the kind words.

  • http://www.jasonbagley.com JBagley

    People seem to knock Microsoft all the time, but I think that comes with being at the front for so long.

    I see it time and again, that whenever there is a MS developer event – thousands come out to see whats new. The last event was way out in Paarl, but that didn’t stop a couple of thousand developers to come and watch demo’s and presentations of what MS are doing. And 90% of the attendees are totally MS reliant.

    Another thought with regards to privacy – because MS does mostly everything off the web – office docs, databases, email etc, privacy isn’t really an issue – whereas with Google, everything is online on their servers – so getting a company to rely on a 3rd party to store everything for the company, is a pretty big concern.

    As much as I love Google, I also have a big respect for MS. I don’t think PC’s over the last 20 years would’ve grown as quickly as it has without MS.

  • Jonathan Bydendyk

    One other thing Microsoft has given us: Visual Studio Express Edition – Free IDE to get budding programmers off the ground without any capital outlay.

    In truth I was very surprised, on release of the first edition, that anything coming from Microsoft could have the word FREE attached to it!

  • Tim

    Interesting observation…

    When a company reaches a certain size, it’s almost impossible not to cross over into the ‘big evil corporate’ category. I think Apple could also follow Google in becoming a victim of it’s own success in the near future…

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  • Liesbet

    Ok this is weird.
    What is the physical address of Google and why is it so dificult to get hold of it?
    Please mail it to me or post it, just reveal it please, there are so many people trying to find it.
    Almost like a treasure hunt with no prize in the end though
    :-) just pure unadulturated frustration.

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