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4/1/2011
02:10 PM
Paul McDougall
Paul McDougall
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Microsoft Needs Tech, Not Torts, To Beat Google

Redmond should be innovating in areas like semantic search instead of getting wrapped up in legal actions against its rival.

Microsoft this week piled on to a European antitrust suit against Google and its so-called search monopoly--time, money, and energy that would be better spent making its own search technology better.

Microsoft legal eagle Brad Smith announced the move with a statement that opens with grudging kudos for Google and some wishful thinking.

"At the outset, we should be among the first to compliment Google for its genuine innovations, of which there have been many over the past decade," Smith wrote, teeth firmly clenched no doubt. "As the only viable search competitor to Google in the U.S. and much of Europe, we respect their engineering prowess and competitive drive."

Viable competitor? The latest data from the wonks at Comscore shows that the combined U.S. market share in search for Microsoft and its partner Yahoo, which hands off queries to Bing, is less than half of Google's. Google has 65.4% of that market, while Microsoft and Yahoo together have 29.7%.

Microsoft on its own has just 13.6% of the search market. And while Comscore's numbers show that Microsoft had been grabbing search market share in recent months, that progress has flatlined.

Oh, right, Microsoft would be right up there were it not for Google's monopolist tactics (something Redmond knows nothing about). "We're concerned by a broadening pattern of conduct aimed at stopping anyone else from creating a competitive alternative," Smith said.

Among other complaints, Microsoft claims Google forces search advertisers to put their data in a proprietary format that's not compatible with other search services, like Bing. Microsoft also claims that Google has made it difficult for Windows Phone 7 devices to access YouTube.

That would be interesting were it not for the fact there's scant evidence that few people other than Microsoft employees use Windows Phone 7 devices. (Actually, I'm using one--and YouTube seems to work just fine on it.)

The reason Bing isn't making big inroads against Google in search is the same reason Windows Phone 7 won't make big gains against the iPhone and Microsoft's tablet OS (whenever Microsoft gets around to producing one) probably won't dent iPad or Android sales: too little, too late, and no compelling reason for customers to switch from platforms they're used to.

If Microsoft wants to really advance in the search business, it needs to focus less on what Smith calls Google's "disconcerting practices" and more on creating a truly innovative search service.

To its credit, Microsoft has added cool new features to Bing in recent months—such as Facebook integration, social shopping (see what your friends bought, and buy it too!), and some one-click e-commerce services. But at the end of the day it's mostly window dressing, and Google is adding similar stuff.

Microsoft will catch Google only if it offers true differentiation. A great place to start would be semantic search—an area that's wide open. All existing search engines, including Google's, fall short when it comes to responding to natural language queries such as, "Is it going to snow tomorrow?"

If Microsoft becomes the first to master semantic search, it will blow the doors off Google and it won't need any help from the very same bureaucrats it complained about when it was the subject of antitrust actions. Microsoft should put its money into coding, not the court system.

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