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9/30/2005
02:56 PM
John Foley
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Microsoft Vs. Google: Beauty In The Eye Of The Beholder

Microsoft's big organizational shakeup, in which the company meshed several business units into three divisions, can be partly explained in one word: Google.

Microsoft's big organizational shakeup, in which the company meshed several business units into three divisions, can be partly explained in one word: Google. There are other rationales for the changes announced last week by Steve Ballmer in an E-mail to Microsoft employees, but there's little doubt that Ballmer and other senior managers felt the need to respond to Google's continuing push into Microsoft's domain.

A lot has been said about the escalating competition between the two companies, some of it right here in InformationWeek's Windows Weblog. In a column last month ("Microsoft Vs. Google: A Rorschach Test"), I compared Microsoft and Google across a number of areas, including earth databases, operating systems, customer focus, and innovation. On the subject of user interfaces, I gave the advantage to Google, citing its "no nonsense" home page. I think of Microsoft's interfaces as being feature rich but not especially intuitive or user friendly. But not everyone agrees that Google does a better job.

"I really think you missed the boat," writes Mood Roghwani. "It's amazing that people overlook the fact that MS interfaces and apps are so professional and useful, and that Google apps look like high-school projects or fads. The fact that they [Google] have a 'clean' front page does not mean that they understand UI design."

I responded that, in my view, Microsoft apps are designed by power users for power users, and added, "Google in many respects has an easier challenge -- it's for the most part a single-function home page." (That's an oversimplification, though. Google's home page actually has about a dozen points of entry, putting you a few clicks away from countless other features and resources.)

Roghwani thinks it's unfair to compare Microsoft's and Google's interfaces at all given the differences in their applications and the fact that Microsoft has more of them. But he throws this interesting point into the debate: "Google's front page is brilliant not because of its difficult design, but because Google understands that there are economic costs associated with each consumer's attention. That is, there is an expense for me, as a consumer, to go to Yahoo's front page and be bombarded with impression ads and services. Companies are willing to pay for my attention, which means that my attention has economic value, which means I am paying units of attention by going to sites like yahoo.com. Google understood that consumers would prefer to sacrifice this attention only when they are asking to sacrifice it (or when they are searching). That's why Google has become the entry point to the Web, and why Yahoo and MSN still haven't figured it out."

Another reader, P. Whelan, agrees that Microsoft has the edge in user-interface design: "Case in point: Google Desktop Search vs. MSN Desktop Search interface. Google has maintained their 'clean' interface standards and presents a limited set of results that I can sort two ways (by date or relevance) and must browse using 'Next' page paradigm. Microsoft, on the other hand, provides the ability to sort almost instantaneously on all the columns presented (relevance, author, date, folder, type, size) even with a huge number of results and to scroll from the top to the bottom of the list. Another neat Microsoft feature is to right-click on a result and search for results authored by the same person or created on the same date. Clear edge to Microsoft."

Both sides have their fans, and if you don't like what you see, just wait a bit -- their interfaces keep evolving. For more on that, see Aaron Ricadela's "The Changing User Interface."

So, what's your view? Which company is smarter about the way they use that precious real estate in the PC screen to meet your needs?

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