Google and Microsoft: Why Does One Seem Cooler and ‘More Innovative’ Than the Other?

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
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.

A prominent space scientist writes:

I remember when Microsoft first introduced Photosynth and was quite excited about it.  There was, however, one "small" problem: the Photosynth tools were (and still are, I believe) only available for Windows.  Since I had a Mac, it was (and, again, still is) unavailable to me.  What I can't use is, ultimately, of no interest to me.  (I also use Linux quite a bit; again, of what use is Photosynth to me?)

Google's Photos (like their other Google products) are web and and cloud based.  Take some pictures, upload to Photos (or have them automatically uploaded), and the "magic" is available on any browser on any operating system.  It's not only interesting, but it's easily available and easy to take advantage of.

The difference is Microsoft wanted to sell you software that worked within (and that fed into) their foundational operating system.  If you didn't support that foundational system, they weren't particularly interested in you. (Of course, there were exceptions to the above, Microsoft Office for the Mac being the obvious example).

On the other hand, Google doesn't want to sell you any software; they in fact give that away for free.  They want your attention, which they can turn around and offer to companies which pay them to run ads while you are paying attention. So they work to make sure their software works on as many systems and browsers as possible (the more eyeballs to sell ads to, the better).

The two companies work (or at least worked in the past) with different philosophies.  I think it's pretty clear which one is working better right now.

And a technology executive based in Hong Kong writes:

In 1995 Microsoft partnered with Tandem Computers to port Windows NT over to Tandem's high availability hardware platform.  It was (for its day) extremely fast with enormous data search and transfer capacity with the very best networking connectivity available.  The joint engineering team struggled mightily to find a data source big and complex enough to really show off the system.  The solution was a searchable database of NASA satellite imagery covering all the continental U.S.

If it sounds like Google Maps version 0.0 ten years in advance of the real thing, then yes, it was exactly that.  The images were black and white and of course there was nothing like StreetView, but it was an extraordinarily innovative and cool application of technology to solve a problem nobody knew existed.  State of the art engineering that never left the lab.  

Bonus irony - I saw the system demonstrated twenty years ago at Tandem Computers headquarters on the corner of North Tantau and Pruneridge in Cupertino.  If that street address doesn't ring a bell, think "Spaceship Campus."


For completeness, here is an account by journalist David Arnott of his experience in having Google Photos upload his smartphone photos to the cloud when he didn’t think it was doing so. This aspect of the system has not been a problem for me, but if you have an Android phone (as I do) it’s worth understanding exactly how to control the upload settings. This guide, from Android Central, tells you how to do that, step by step.


The next two Notes installments, which I’ll space out over the holiday weekend, will both be thankfulness-themed. One will be about encouraging recent developments in the “sustainable capitalism” sphere. The other, about some nice news in places we’ve come to know in our American Futures travels. Then when the weekend is over, back to the South China Sea. Happy Thanksgiving.