Part one of a three part series.
Part One: Why Bother?
Google apps and services are an integral part of my personal and professional life. I can’t imagine traveling without Google Maps on my phone. At work, we’ve long since switched from Exchange servers to Gmail, including Docs, Drive and Hangouts. I’m an Android phone user, and I’ve stuck with the Nexus line since day one, and the G1 before that. As far as smartphones go, I’ve been firmly entrenched in the Google ecosystem from the beginning. Before that, however, I owned a T-Mobile Wing running Windows Mobile 6.5, and I loved that phone.
I like the idea of federated software; that is to say, data and functionality that is shared between systems and applications. I prefer my software better understand me so that it becomes a more effective tool. Google does this really well. For example, when I get an email containing flight information, Google Now will parse that information and, without any prompting, present me with an infographic detailing departure and arrival information. No doubt, you’ve experienced this yourself. So if I like these services so much, why use less of them?
The short answer is that I’m doing it for fun. I’m a technologist and I make a living writing code. For me, a necessary part of the passion for technology is curiosity. Watching Microsoft’s recent Build 2016 event, the things that Microsoft are doing has piqued my interest. Specifically, their machine learning initiative and how that may manifest in Cortana, Microsoft’s analog to Siri and Google Now.
Another answer is a bit more about principle. Being a technologist, I understand that it can be counterproductive to lock yourself into one technology. When it comes to software, there are hundreds, if not thousands in many cases, of tools and solutions for problems that exist. Some are better than others, but you can’t know which solution is best for you if you’ve predetermined what you’re going to use to do the things you want to do. Google has a lot of good stuff, but how has Microsoft been doing?
I haven’t stopped using Microsoft products in order to go all-in for Google. I’ve been using Visual Studio for nearly a decade, trying other SDKs when necessary, but Visual Studio is still my preference. The problem, in my opinion, that Microsoft ran into in the early-to-mid 2000’s, was that they were an entrenched software company who didn’t have much to worry about, so innovation from Redmond languished. When Google came to prominence, they were moving fast, launching applications and doing cool things. They were making Microsoft look bad at first but eventually started eating their lunch. Then Apple had its renaissance with the iPod and the iPhone. At one point in the tech media, Microsoft wasn’t even being called an also-ran, they were being branded as irrelevant.
J Allard embodied the kind of visionary that Microsoft needed to embrace. Allard, considered the father of the Xbox, also wrote an internal document claiming that Windows should be the Killer App of the internet in 1994 and was responsible for Windows 95 shipping with TCP/IP. After the success of the Xbox 360, Allard began other projects for Microsoft including the Zune, the Kin and the Courier. The Zune has been focus of derision since the day it launched, despite being a device that went from good to great. The first Zunes didn’t find a big audience competing against the iPod juggernaut. By the time the Zune HD released, it seemed as though Microsoft had lost its desire to promote the device, which is a shame, because I still have mine, and not only does it work great, the UI is awesome and appears to be the beginning of Microsoft’s transition to the Metro interface. The Kin, a phone that was developed by Danger Hiptop (makers of the Sidekick), was an utter failure. I don’t know if it really sucked, but I remember at the time that it was marketed so poorly that it doesn’t seem like many people got a chance to find out for themselves. Marketing never seemed to be Microsoft’s strength, especially compared to Apple. And the Courier was a dual-screen tablet device that folded like a book. The promotional video was awesome and I was very excited for this device. The disaster of the Kin, I can only assume, impacted Microsoft’s faith that Allard could find the success he had with the Xbox. Microsoft killed the Courier and Allard resigned. I tell you this story because, at the time, Allard seemed like a guy who had cool ideas, but under the Ballmer-era Microsoft, it doesn’t seem like innovation was given priority, so guys like Allard saw their ideas struggle or altogether flatline. At this time, Microsoft was being seen as a company too big to get out of its own way. New ideas were in short supply and existing products were inching along rather than evolving in a meaningful way. Many people, myself included, were excited by the things Apple and Google were doing, so that’s where we went. Not all of Allard’s ideas were big wins, but they were different and that’s what I liked about them.
Under Satya Nadella, appointed to CEO after Ballmer retired, Microsoft is nearly unrecognizable today. Open sourcing software, innovating new products and, most importantly, listening to consumers and moving quickly to build products people want positions Microsoft back into the relevance that it had been lacking for a very long time. This alone is enough to make me want to see what kind of improvements Microsoft has made to much of its product offerings.
How much software are we really using as opposed to novelty apps that we want to like more than we actually do? This is the question I’ve been asking myself as I considered how locked in to the Google ecosystem I’ve allowed myself to get. This is the crux of the experiment. This doesn’t mean that I’m going to stop using Google services in spite of Google. I may discover that Microsoft has developed software that I find more useful that I never would have considered as a result of my ecosystem lock-in. Now I’m going to see what Microsoft has to offer outside of the software I’m already using, and if I find better tools, good for me.
In the next two articles, I will offer my insight as I delve into Microsoft’s ecosystem, starting first with services and software, followed up with opinions as I compare Microsoft mobile apps with their Google counterparts.