Reporter's Notebook

The Tech Innovation Chronicles
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Dispatches by James Fallows and others on the technological, cultural, business-model, and other determinants of modern innovation.
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Google and Microsoft: Why Does One Seem Cooler and ‘More Innovative’ Than the Other?

Young Bill Gates, innovator (Microsoft)

In the three previous installments you’ll find lower down in this Thread, I started with ‘Google’s powerful new Photos feature — and then heard from a Microsoft veteran about Microsoft’s earlier steps in this same field. Why, this reader asked, does Google (or Apple) end up with so much of the attention and coolness factor for developments that had been underway, longer, elsewhere in the techno-sphere? Readers weigh in with further hypotheses.

First, a reader in the tech business in California says the crucial concept is that of the “first widely noticed” innovation, rather than the first actual engineering or scientific breakthrough:

Variations on this theme have been playing out for years.  People thinking VMware came-up with virtualization, when it was IBM (or someone else) back in the 1960s.  People thinking that x86 servers were where fancy network interface card features (“stateless offloads”) were created when it was in the mini-computer vendors.  Call it “first widely noticed” advantage I suppose.

A reader who has worked at Google, but not on the Photos feature, writes:

Your ex-Microsoft correspondent reminds me of an old New Yorker cartoon I used to have on my office door but unfortunately got lost in a move. In the cartoon, a beaver and a rabbit stand in front of a huge concrete dam, and the beaver tells the rabbit something like "It was my idea, you know?"

Great products are not just a pile of good ideas, they are a combination that works well together in practice to meet real user needs. PhotoSynth was indeed a great technology, but it was never incorporated into a compelling product. And your correspondent conveniently ignores the biggest innovation in Google Photos, its unparalleled ability to find relevant photos from descriptions of their content.

More assessments after the jump.

Panorama photo created by Microsoft’s Windows Live Photo Gallery. For details, read on.

In two earlier dispatches, here and here, I suggested that you give Google Photos a try if you hadn’t done so already. The most obvious payoff is providing an answer to the increasingly pressing question of how to handle increasing zillions of digital images. The less obvious advantage that has grown on me involves the big data/AI aspects of the system — the way it automatically groups photos of one scene into panorama views, or created animated GIFs, or creates albums with titles like “Iron Pigs Game in Allentown” by recognizing the landmarks and activities.

Yes, I know that on the other side of this same technology is the Panopticon Surveillance State. For now I’m talking about the applications that many users will find convenient — and, in particular, where they originated.

A reader who was a long-time official at Microsoft writes in to lament the fact that Google is now being either oohed and aahed at, or viewed with concern, for innovations that Microsoft had been chipping away at for years, especially with a product called Photosynth. I turn it over to the reader:

Once again I shake my head at the ways my ex-employer [Microsoft] would develop a great idea, and then not follow through, partly because of an inability to catch on with the cool crowd.

Photosynth could not just stitch many photos together, it could (given enough pictures) create a 3D model – about 10 years ago. It’s not as passive as Google Photos, as you have to point it at your picture collection, but it would have been relatively easy to make it munch on photos uploaded to OneDrive. The idea has basically just sat as a research project, with the last update 9 months ago, and now Google gets the credit for a great innovation. Apparently people are still using it (who knew?): go to for some recent 3D creations.

I’d never known of this project; I went to the site after getting his note; and he’s right! It looks very interesting. For instance, check this out. Back to the reader:

Recently I recommended that you check out Google Photos if you have not done so already. Like Gmail, it’s a way to store huge quantities of digital material and leave its management to someone else. (I promise, later we’ll get into the privacy tradeoffs involved.) And much more than Gmail, it offers big-data tools that can arrange and transform your information/photos in ways difficult or impossible to do by yourself.

For instance: I mentioned that Google Photos had, on its own, merged three smart-phone snapshots of a scene at Oxford into one panorama view. Several people wrote in to say: Let’s see the originals! So here goes.

Front courtyard of The Queen’s College, Oxford, recently, in a panorama that Google Photos automatically created from several overlapping smart-phone shots. Here is a link to the same composite picture in full rez.

Two quick updates on themes I’ve mentioned over the years.

Hit: Google Photos. You may well already have started using this service — some 100 million people have done so since its debut early this year. If you haven’t, by all means check it out. It is the closest thing I’ve had to the feeling of magic in online life in a very long while.

This review a few months ago, by Casey Newton in The Verge, gives you the main idea. The title, “How Google solved our photo backup nightmare,” covers one main feature. Just as Gmail long ago became the place where it was easiest and most efficient to store, arrange, retrieve, and otherwise handle electronic messages, Google Photos finally seem as if it can be the answer for the ever-mounting volume of digital images. Yes, I’m aware that Google is making use of the vast raw data users entrust to it. Newton’s piece, and another in Verge by Ryan Gantz, explain why they think (as I do) that the tradeoff is worthwhile.

Beyond the storage-dump aspect is the application of big-data in ways that are sometimes creepy but more often useful and even astonishing. This past summer I took a few camera-phone snapshots at The Queen’s College in Oxford, where my wife and I were married long ago. The next time I logged into Google Photos, it had, unbidden, aligned and assembled the patches into the composite panorama you see above, or here. Pictures you take in the modern geo-tagging age it can of course match to locations. But based on images alone it has gone through and grouped old photos by location — giving me, for instance, a collection of pictures taken in Duluth, Minnesota in 2002, or another from Shanghai a few years later.

As Gantz says:

The service delights by offering me presents. As photos upload, Google Photos is processing old pictures I’ve forgotten about, including images that I’ve assumed were unremarkable or superfluous, and assembling them into collages, animations, and experiences that I wasn’t aware I wanted. “Assistant” offers me its creations and politely asks if I want to dismiss them or add them to my library. Like an opening of Timehop, these little creations can be surprising and lovely.

It’s hard to appreciate this feature until you experience it. I keep eagerly checking Google Photos notifications on my phone, excited about what Assistant has crafted from my digital trail. I find animations of my children playing on the grass, a collage of my wife giggling, a trip to Austin rendered as a slide show.

Let me emphasize the “hard to appreciate until you’ve seen it” point. For instance, here is a GIF animation of a visit to the Southern Tier brewery near Chautauqua in August, which Google Photos auto-created from a set of phone snapshots.

Judge for yourself, but certainly give it a try.


Miss: Livescribe Pen. I’ll try to make this concise, because I’m writing to amend the record rather than to beat up on anyone.

Starting six years ago, I have in this space frequently sung the praises of the Livescribe pen. When it appeared, Livescribe was another seemingly magical step forward: it matched notes you made in a special notebook, with audio recordings it was making at the same time. Later on, you could simply click on the notes you’d made — during an interview, at a lecture, in a language lesson — and hear that exact part of the recording played back.