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Reality Absorption Field: Why Microsoft was no Google part two

A previous Reality Absorption Field examined three ways in which Google has taken on Apple in ways that Microsoft never could. in this week's column, we'll look at three other ways that Google has distinguished itself as a more worthy Apple rival.

Design

Microsoft has made a lot of progress in its user interface design since the days when Office was littered with tiny and rarely used toolbar icons (as well as one of my most hated user interface foible, short menus). The software changes started in some of the early work around Xbox and the Windows Media Center that now lives in limbo, The latter's Portable Media Center companion device platform planted the seeds of the user interface that would evolve through Zune to become the Modern user interface in Windows 8 and Windows Phone. On the hardware side, things started improving with the 'squircle"-equipped second-generation Zune and showed further progress with the Zune HD and Xbox 360.

Google has an even sparser history in designing its own hardware than Microsoft, and the Chromecast is nothing to look at (literally, as it is designed to be hidden behind the TV). But the pricey and understated Chromebook Pixel is a gorgeous laptop. The Moto X, on the other hand, is attractive if not exceptional versus the iPhone or HTC One. On the software side, Android is notorious for its rough edges and UI inconsistency, but the baseline from which it started was certainly much better than legacy operating systems it squeezed out such as Windows Mobile and BlackBerry 7. Android has taken big steps forward with the Holo user interface guidelines as well as Google's own mobile apps.

Everywhere

Windows controls the PCs used by hundreds of millions of users. But it is under the hood, or at least it had been for many years until the jarring changes in Windows 8. People spend hours with Microsoft Office getting stuff done, but it is really Xbox that is Microsoft's best tool for emotional engagement. In contrast, Google has become, for far more people a gateway to the world's knowledge and, via its maps, the route to its destinations. Microsoft has fought back with strong improvements in its search engine, Web mail and mapping. It's probably safe to say, though, that the lack of strongly supported Google services on Windows Phone is a bigger sales impediment than the lack of strongly supported Microsoft services on Android devices.

Failure

Microsoft's been quick to pull the kill switch on a number of its projects that crashed and burned out of the gate, such as its Kin phones. However, it's generally more tenacious, having stuck with the Zune through three product generations and having its name even live on for a bit after it finally ceded what was left of a dwindling music player market to Apple. Despite the flop of the Surface tablets, you can be sure that Microsoft will be back for a second generation. Google, on the other hand, has embraced early retirement for its products that don't resonate such as the Wave collaboration software mentioned in last week's column, and even for fairly popular services that don't resonate enough, such as Google Reader. Again, with a consumer base, and one that typically does not pay for its products, there is less concern about customer blowback. Its quickness to close its Buzz social networking service paved the way for a more successful but quite different approach in Google+.

When compared to current Internet darlings such as Facebook and Twitter, it's a bit difficult to consider that Google has been around since 1998. Microsoft, of course, is of another technology generation, having been founded in 1975, a year before Apple. It's no surprise that Microsoft (Big Software), now being squeezed by Google (Big Services) and Apple (Big Devices) now wants to turn itself into a "services and devices" company. But if one looks at the competitive heat map, it should be no surprise that Apple is scrambling to build up iCloud and assorted services to prepare for what has been its greatest competitor.

Ross Rubin is principal analyst at Reticle Research, a research and advisory firm focusing on consumer technology adoption. He shares commentary at Techspressive and on Twitter at @rossrubin.

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