Google: the better customer experience

How could Microsoft improve on Google's customer experience? Well that is the wrong question really. It does not really want to give consumers a better product or a better experience; it just wants to win - not a bad definition of Microsoft-style innovation.

          I was almost caught by an April Fool's joke this year. The memo said there was a meeting scheduled for 11am on April 1 to discuss firing all the secretaries and replacing them with one all-powerful secretary. I was on my way out of the door when I glanced at the calendar. Luckily no one had seen me on my way so I could quickly return to work and spend the rest of the day making fun of the gormless idiots who had actually gone to Boardroom 3. But the real joke arrived in the inbox the next day, forwarded by someone who said he was still sore from laughing.

          Microsoft wants to take on Google! Bob Visse, director for the MSN Internet services division, said on April 2: "We view Google more and more as a competitor. We believe that we can provide consumers with a better product and a better user experience. That is something that we are actively looking at doing."

          Visse mentioned that his company would be investing in search engine technology but would not give specifics.

          My correspondent is right: it was a funny email. Google is popular because it is fast, simple and effective. It is so popular that it is now a verb, one of the most sought-after ways of measuring a brand's effectiveness. "I googled for it the other day." Advertisements placed on Google continually get sales and click-throughs without being obtrusive.

          On a 56k modem, the simple graphics load very quickly. Even with little to work with, the designers have a lot of fun with the logo. Check it out on interesting days of the year sometime. In other words, here is a good product with a great user experience. It works over my modem, it is fast and has no pop-up ads. It also searches something like three billion pages, ranking them using a technique that takes into account what other humans think of the pages. That means, apart from the relevancy, the results can be trusted a lot more than a Microsoft search engine. Thus I find in a search on MSN for "Linux", that the third link (out of a couple of hundred matches) points to "Alternatives to Linux-Apache-MySQL-PHP at Microsoft.com." Google finds 56,7m links with linux.org in the first place. So you intuitively realise that Google's results can be trusted and those of MSN cannot. Google the company has also done some great things for the internet community. Probably the best example is the complete USENET archive from when the internet was a toddler.

          So how could Microsoft improve on Google's customer experience? Well that is the wrong question really. It does not really want to give consumers a better product or a better experience; it just wants to win - not a bad definition of Microsoft-style innovation. Identify a market where it does not play, buy some technology and squash everyone else in it. A first step to relegating Google to the pile of bodies (perhaps on top of Netscape and Novell) would be to integrate an MSN search button into future versions of Windows. It worked with IE. It has not worked with Hotmail though. Despite being free and easy to use, Hotmail has not yet taken over the world.

          Come to think of it, very few internet-based products from Redmond that have had to compete standalone have succeeded. All Microsoft really has is the desktop and Office.

          An integrated MSN button? I am not sure it would work. MSN after all is just a hodgepodge of internet services.

          Google is one service that does what it does well. Google News and Google Images may seem different but they are not really - they are just searching different categories of data. The core service is exactly the same.

          Just a couple of days before this joke email, I read that Google was shying away from an IPO. That is a wise move if it does not want to be bought. But sometimes even the power of three billion pages cannot help. While I was writing up last week's column about WiFi, Kurt phoned me from Europe. He is on holiday and was calling via his cellphone from the ferry to Capri. He had forgotten the hotel where he was supposed to be staying. I had to log into his credit card account via my own connection and check the billing information on his statement. I first tried searching but the result that came back was the wrong hotel. Even Google sometimes struggles with the number of hotels on Capri.

          Bergkamp is an overworked, underpaid systems support engineer in the Lambda Bureau, the IT department of the Ministry of Boards, Committees and Working Groups. He would love to hear from kindred spirits in the IT corporate world. Send him tip-offs, allegations, hints and blatant accusations.

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