Google is the hottest tech name right now, significantly hotter than even iPod. It’s no surprise that Steve Ballmer, CEO of Microsoft, is feeling the heat from Google’s success. At the end of June, he listed Google and open source as top competitors for Microsoft. It sounded as if Microsoft is having a bit of trouble balancing innovation with listening to customer feedback; customers expect Microsoft to surprise them with great features, but also to suit their needs and listen when they have feedback. Meanwhile, Google has had progressive innovations in search, which Ballmer recognized.
Still Microsoft’s CEO is unhappy with the state of search technologies. He warned that he isn’t expecting to see Google invading Microsoft’s domain of operating systems, but Microsoft will definitely become a major player in search. Already, MSN Search is ranked number three, behind Yahoo and Google. But that just isn’t good enough for Microsoft. If the software giant has its way, Google will be ancient history in 5 years.
Microsoft is a late-comer to search engines. Up until February of this year, MSN Search was powered by an engine and index leased from their search partner, most recently Yahoo. When Microsoft released its own proprietary index and engine, it had been in development for two years.
Even though it’s new, MSN Search is catching up to Google. They return almost equally relevant results in most cases. MSN Search still struggles with questions and certain types of searches, but Microsoft is constantly listening to user feedback and making corrections. Though both engines are already useful, they turn up different websites as top results. This mean search engine specialists must undergo different optimization for both kinds of engines. Opening up a whole new venue for search engine marketing is definitely good news for those shoved to the bottom of other search engines, and it’s a new headache for those who were doing great before.
Perhaps if users follow Microsoft’s search engine, SEO experts will consider optimization tips for MSN as extraordinarily valuable as Google’s currently are. This isn’t a ridiculous idea, either. Microsoft thrives on targeting successful competitors and taking them down to obscurity. Using the leverage of their existing products, Microsoft will probably try to promote MSN Search. They will likely integrate it into Windows, Internet Explorer, and their new desktop search (which integrates into both of the former plus Outlook). It’s worked for them before. Remember Netscape, WordPerfect, Lotus, and Borland? Microsoft would like to add Google to that list, but Google isn’t getting too worried yet.
After hopping over to the MSN Search site (http://search.msn.com/), you’ll notice the interface really looks like a Google XP. It is very minimalist: a little corporate branding at top, some search engine features linked under the brand, a search bar, and a few other web services linked at the bottom. This is clearly emulating Google’s clean interface and departing from MSN’s normal barrage of clutter and ads.
Most of Microsoft’s search features are new or in beta, and some don’t even appear on the home page. It’s not quite as robust and user friendly as Google yet.
For instance, MSN has a shopping engine (http://shopping.msn.com) to compete with Froogle (http://froogle.google.com), which is not linked on the search page. Of course, the shopping feature isn’t very useful yet; it returned only a tiny fraction of the results Froogle did for the PC parts I searched (some specific AMD processors and DDR memory). I don’t know why Microsoft would want to keep the shopping search separate from their MSN Search, but they may be waiting until it’s more useful to integrate it into the search suite.
Besides emulating Google’s interface and shopping search, MSN has included an image search and a local search, coming into direct competition with some of Google’s central features. Doing a few quick local searches, the interface here is also very similar, right down to the color scheme Microsoft chose matching Google’s color scheme. The only notable thing that MSN Search changed was that it added a bunch of undesired web results below the local search, which is the clutter of MSN showing through.
Related to the local search is Microsoft’s debuted Virtual Earth. The Virtual Earth is obviously a response to Google Map’s satellite imagery.
MSN Search’s image search also resembles Google’s; after clicking through a results page of image thumbnails, it shows the image in one frame and the source site in another other frame. It would be nice to see a little more design creativity from Microsoft. When their site resembles Google so much, it achieves no distinction.
Even with these new MSN Search features invading Google’s territory, Eric Schmidt, Google’s CEO, isn’t breaking a sweat. Since Microsoft is a complete newcomer to search, he expects it will be years before Microsoft could reach the point that Google has on the web. He later said, “It looks to me like this space is so large that there will be multiple winners.” He said that Google’s true competitor is Yahoo. This seems a much more reasonable pair, since Yahoo is another established search giant who’s product offering doesn’t vary much from Google’s.
This doesn’t stop Google from offering competition for Microsoft. Just as Microsoft is stampeding into search, Google has already started creeping onto the desktop. Last year, Google offered a desktop search that integrated onto a user’s taskbar or desktop. Months later, Yahoo, Apple, and Microsoft all released their own desktop searches. Now the competition in these products seems largely based on how many file formats can be supported and how well the search can be integrated to the operating system.
Google’s expansion has been based on some fair innovation followed by a lot of repackaging. The Google search has seen many incarnations, from an online shopping tool to a local map hunter. Recently, though, they have been branching into less familiar territory. One such area is Gmail, web based email with deep search integration. This service has come into stiff competition with Microsoft’s Hotmail and Yahoo mail. With far less annoying advertising and a cleaner site, Gmail is giving competitors a real challenge even though it’s still in beta.
If you check out Google Labs and some other new things in Google’s stash, you’ll see their ambitions. For one thing, that Google login that users enter into Gmail will soon be useful for a lot more. They are linking personalized services together using that login. The company is designing a personal home page system (much like My Yahoo) that allows logged-in users to see what they want on Google’s homepage, including news headlines and subjects of emails sitting in their Gmail accounts.
Also, Google is releasing a Search History feature that uses that login. While logged in, the search engine logs what searches you made and what results you checked out. Is it obvious where this is going? Just as web based email like Gmail make Outlook and other email checking programs unnecessary, this online history replaces the history feature in web browsers. However, unlike the records that Internet Explorer and Firefox keep, Google’s feature takes this one step further than its counterparts can. It helps to customize search results for participating users and brings them the results that it determines to be the best for that person’s surfing habbits.
As Google adopts more features like this, it brings more of a user’s focus to itself and away from traditional software. This allows Google to customize the internet experience for users, and it simultaneously makes local software less vital.
More and more ordinary applications are being moved to the internet, some that people already take for granted. An amazing amount of research is done online, circumventing libraries. Journaling has moved from diaries and word processors to internet blogs. Google is helping to fuel this trend, and it is also thriving from it. As more of users’ time is spent online and working through Google and other web portals, users spend less attention on what other software they may be using.
This is likely where Microsoft feels most threatened. Google is not replacing Windows anytime soon, as Steve Ballmer said, but it is reducing the significance of it. Google and Yahoo both draw a person’s attention away from their personal computer and give users an interface with information and applications. Operating system choice could become increasingly less important; Google works equally well on Apple and Windows. Internet applications are becoming the computer user’s interface. If all programs that define user experience work just as well across platforms, Windows users will definitely not feel locked in at all. Just as you don’t think about the technical details of your watch, users may become less concerned with those of their local computer.
In the long term, this could be the beginning of recentralizing where computing is done, moving from independent PCs to online services. Eventually, Windows could mean little more to a user than a set of drivers and a web browser, a tool to get to Google and integrate with it. The user may someday hold and access all their personal information and frequently used applications online in web portals.
While this is speculation, the foundation for such a transition is undeniably under our noses. As internet applications and personal computers become more and more integrated, the potential only grows. Microsoft definitely sees the benefit in establishing itself before it’s left too far behind established online companies.
So far, it looks like Microsoft is following the tried and true method of copying competitors. Soon we may see them seduce users into using MSN Search by integrating it with all aspects of upcoming Windows Longhorn. This would be similar to how the company established Internet Explorer in Windows 98 and subsequently destroyed Netscape.
But Microsoft cannot kill Google eaily. As things are progressing, by the time Longhorn comes out, most people will probably have a Google user ID that has many purposes. Without an easy way to transfer user data to equal Microsoft services, they will be moderately locked into Google. Sure, they can make a new ID with MSN Search but they lose their familiar homepage, already personalized search results, all their Gmail they’ve been saving, and any other new services Google introduces. Netscape didn’t have this leverage when they went under, and casual users didn’t lose anything by switching.
Google is in a vulnerable position; as a web service, the barriers that keep users from switching to other services are much lower than those, say, blocking people from converting from Windows to Linux or OS X (where there may be training and new hardware needed). This also means MSN Search will be in a vulnerable position, and it’s not that hard to change a browser’s homepage from MSN to Google. Ultimately, the company to come out on top will hopefully be the one that brings the most innovation to computing technologies. Though, most likely, there will be “multiple winners” as Schmidt suggested.