Why Microsoft keep getting it wrong - social, search, music, messaging and more…

Image courtesy of Arbit blog

Contrary to popular perception, Microsoft is one of the most revolutionary software-makers out there, yet it has been eclipsed by Apple, Google and others. Why? Let’s look at some examples:

Search Wars

Everyone I know loves to use Google, including me.  But I also use Bing too. Why? Because it’s a great search engine for browsing and it’s beautifully conceived. Its social search feature is good, but needs improvement and I love its Twitter map, when it works.

However, I tend to use Google more because its results - and I’m not sure whether this is down to perception or algorithm - tend to be more accurate. Google is also moving incredibly quickly on social search, aided by wins with Google Plus and +1s and I can see the beginnings of change to my search behaviour as a result.

Bing is a fantastic product that could do with improvement. Microsoft is on the right track, but it needs to show users exactly what to do with its product. So many of Bing’s great features are tucked away behind several clicks or are broken and even if it was on the ball with social search, I have no real incentive to remain logged in to Bing.

Music and Storage

Here’s where Microsoft has really missed out. Its Zune platform is arguably better than iTunes but it’s still not as intuitive as it has to be to succeed. It does not have the best of libraries and, like the iTunes Store, it suffers from being expensive, even for those of us who wish to pay for content. It is, however, substantially easier to use than iTunes.

And have any of you heard of SkyDrive? Don’t worry, it’s likely you haven’t and this is Microsoft’s fault. Quite some time before the announcement of iCloud, Microsoft released its SkyDrive which offers free storage space that’s well-integrated to Windows Platforms.

Apple tried to create a social network based on its distribution platform (Ping) which failed miserably. Microsoft hasn’t trialled an equivalent, nor should it. Microsoft should instead focus on creating an experience which integrates elements of the most popular social networks. If I could use Zune online with music streaming and Facebook integration with the ability to quickly and securely share cloud-based files with my Facebook or Google contacts, I would. Google does not currently have a platform that does this, nor does Apple. There is room to implement it first and throw some weight behind it in advance of the realisation of the Microsoft-Nokia partnership.

Messaging

Messaging is another area where Microsoft was a clear leader that lost the edge. At one stage, everyone I knew online was on Windows/MSN messenger. I haven’t logged in to chat for about three years. It gained primacy at a time when other free messengers were harder to use and were substantially less aesthetically pleasing. Yahoo! messenger began the challenge and now messaging is multi-platform and opportunity-based. I’ll chat to some people via gmail, others via Facebook chat or Skype and still others across Google’s various platforms.

Mail

Microsoft had it horribly wrong with Hotmail. There was a time when everyone I knew had a hotmail account, but frustration with it was limitless. When Google offered me a free e-mail solution that was easy to use, searchable and wouldn’t delete my e-mails when I was on a long holiday, I leapt at the opportunity.

Microsoft has since tried to improve Hotmail. It’s a much better product than it once was but it still retains that hotmail clutter and traditional usability issues. Microsoft needs to seriously think about reexamining the entire engine and a possible rebrand. In this, it can learn from Apple - look at mac.com to mac.me to the new iCloud.

So why do Microsoft keep getting it wrong?

The broad problem, pieced together from the above, is that Microsoft’s vision is spot on but its implementation is poor. Bing’s social offering just doesn’t compare and this is possibly the biggest challenge facing Microsoft. On top of that, its online search-social brand identity is distributed through several different brands that are difficult to tie together under one umbrella. With Google I have Google Mail, Google Plus and my Google Docs tied together with search with one easy toolbar. I even have a portal of sorts with iGoogle. The branding is broadly spot on. Not so with Microsoft. We go from Bing to Hotmail to Messenger to SkyDrive, loosely connected with the boring, tacked-on Microsoft brand.

It needs to update its Hotmail platform to compete with Gmail and other superior mail providers. It needs to shift the Hotmail brand to something else (perhaps BingMail or BMail). It needs to lose the MSN focus and make Bing its centrepiece as Google has done for its search engine. It needs to then properly integrate its messenger system. Perhaps if the system became an aggregator for chat akin to Adium we could see a branded winner? It then needs to make sure it works across multiple software platforms. It’s getting it right with Windows Phone (to an extent) but it needs to be easy to use on other operating systems, from Mac OS X to Linux.

Combine the above with BingDrive and a good, cheap streaming service (BingSound?) and Microsoft could be on course to realising its vision.

Can Google+ rival Facebook and Twitter? Some initial thoughts

Google+ Google Plus icons for Circles Spark Hangouts

Google+'s features - Home, Circles, Sparks, Hangouts, Photos and Huddle

It’s too early to tell whether or not Google+, the company’s challenger to Facebook, will find success. Google’s Documents and Apps have seen widespread use, yet other services have struggled, like Wave. Early feedback suggests that from a user perspective, Google+ is getting some things right, but is not yet a solid package or a true rival to Facebook or Twitter.

The plus

Its real USP is ‘Circles’, which is a way of quickly and easily managing those you follow and then targeting those groups with content. This is a fantastic addition to friend/follower management and is something Facebook users have needed for years. It’s also potentially one of its biggest problems: if Facebook reacts quickly and introduces better peer management and targeting, then Circles ceases to be a differentiator.

Beyond Circles, it’s also promoting group video chat (‘Hangouts’) and topic browsing (‘Sparks’). Personally, I like Sparks. It works for me in the same way Bing does, i.e “let me browse but yes, give me that initial spark”. Hangouts is a great feature for those who like video chats. But I’m not sure it’s enough to take audience from, say, Skype. Google has fantastic voice recognition facilities for its mobile services. It would have been great, for example,  to support Hangouts with automatic voice transcription for the hard of hearing or for business meetings.

…and the minus?

It’s therefore going to be an uphill climb. Google hasn’t done itself any favours with its staggered approach to release. It worked for Gmail because people were looking for a great, free e-mail service and its central features did not rely on who or how many people you knew. Google+, however, requires you to have friends who are also using Google+. I have 300 friends on Facebook who are constantly chatting with me and giving me content to explore. Why should I go to Google+ to interact with 20 people?

If they want to succeed, then from a user perspective they really need to offer more of what the other networks don’t have (and a killer could have been decent cloud storage and streaming) and they need to make it easy for users to aggregate. Something as simple as grabbing contact e-mails from your Facebook friends en masse would have instantly made this more interesting. Why not allow me to connect using Twitter and Facebook to pull in feeds from both? Google could have made Google+ something I want as my homepage, my one-stop shop to the internet. They could have reinvented the internet portal - something Microsoft has been trying for years with MSN but failing because of poor application.

The value for brands?

As for brands, I don’t think there’s anything in this for them in the short term. Longer term I think brand engagement will be in the form of specialised search and content advertising (eg through ‘Sparks’ or interspersed through the stream). There’s a lot of white space that would be perfect for advertising. On top of that, Engadget found references to game sharing in the background code, suggesting that there’s much more to come that users and brands can do.

Perhaps that’s the central benefit Google will try to sell? ‘Come to Google+. We have ads, but it’s not nearly as invasive or pervasive as on Facebook!’