Compare and Contrast – Microsoft and Google

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Last weekend we held a company conference in Visegrad, Hungary. It was a mixture of instruction, inspiration, and a drink called Jagermeister.

We are not a large group (LLP Group) but we managed to assemble around 70 of our marketing, sales and consulting staff from seven of our European branches at a pleasant hotel in Visegrad on the Danube for two full days of talks and discussions. Most of our presentations were about ourselves and what we do, but we decided also to step back from the day to day and contemplate the future. So we invited Microsoft and Google to present their visions of how the world will look in two consecutive formal sessions. We were lucky, I suppose, that both took us seriously enough to send a representative.

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Whilst the worlds of Microsoft and Google overlap in some areas (their interest in cloud computing, in desktop tools (spreadsheets, word processing, etc.), in mobile technology (Windows Mobile and Google Android), and in search tools (Bing and Google)), what was surprising about these two giants of the tech-world was how different they are, to some extent in substance, but enormously in style.

First to go was Microsoft. A man in a dark suit from Microsoft’s Dynamics business software division talked about the ‘cloud’. This wasn’t enormously interesting. The future of computing is the cloud, he said, and it sounded like a dull future. It was the usual business PowerPoint presentation, heavily branded with the Microsoft logo, corporate and unremarkable.

The young lady from Google, by contrast, started with a picture of herself and her family and went on to present her ideas (and perhaps also Google’s) in an engagingly idiosyncratic, and almost entirely ‘unbranded’ way. ‘No brand’, it appears, is the Google brand. Be personal, individual, unusual, and cool, is the theme. Bring your family to the ‘table’. Life and work are a continuum. It’s the same message, I suspect, for both internal and external consumption, but we shouldn’t be fooled into thinking it isn’t calculated.

She spoke about how the nature of IT is changing, how devices assail us (well, that’s probably an old-fashioned way of putting it!) in all sorts of ways all day, everyday and everywhere, but that predominantly it’s the mobile device that is determining the way we work and play. IT, even business IT, must live up the expectations of the new generation who spend their time on mobiles. If IT isn’t easy to use it will be forgotten.

I asked her afterwards how she thought this would affect the world of business software. It’s hard to see SAP or accounting systems on mobiles, I suggested. Maybe, she said, but young people don’t want to join corporations any more, they don’t want to be working with heavy-duty old-fashioned ERP, so business software must adapt. Young people have individual, creative, even ‘moral’ aspirations. Google the ‘anarchists’, it seems.

There’s a little truth in this, perhaps. The young are always idealistic. But the business software juggernaut will nevertheless roll on, adapting slowly and painfully to the easier-to-use styles of consumer software. The fact is that business systems become ever more complex, and will always take man-millennia to write and adapt. Complexity isn’t easy to fit into a mobile device.

You might as well say that literary authors must write novels of pamphlet length if they’re to be taken seriously by the next generations. Let’s make things easy, if that’s appropriate, but let’s not dumb down.

So the differences between Google and Microsoft are more about style than substance. Both are, in fact, highly organised and enormous business, juggernauts themselves. The first presents itself as anarchic and individualistic, the second as more sober and business-oriented. Both have been creative (occasionally) but neither can seriously pretend to be anything other than a large well-organised multi-national corporation, disciplined and deliberate.

And neither can Apple. All three of these are highly competitive and meticulously calculated in their moves, Microsoft perhaps driven more by business, Google more by the consumer, but both slaves to their respective markets. True, the consumer and the business worlds nowadays overlap, but there are still some things each company does that are unique. We’re tempted by Google’s cloud-based desktop tools, but they don’t yet have an answer to MS SQL.

When it comes to style, consumer-facing companies need a different image from business-facing companies and both must be careful when they need to face in both directions (note that Skype, largely consumer-facing, isn’t heavily branded by Microsoft as a Microsoft product). But I don’t strongly believe that the capacity of these companies for innovation is a function of their presentation style.

That said, during a separate presentation that I gave on our own systems@work products, I asked my colleagues what devices and what browsers they use. The majority use Android, and the majority use Chrome, so in that respect (and I was surprised), it’s 2-0 to Google. But then we all use Windows on our PCs, and SQL servers for our business applications, and Google doesn’t even compete with these.

Shared Ancestry – Shared Values

The Hungarians and the Finns share a common history, somewhere beyond the Urals and near the River Ob. The evidence for this is largely linguistic. Their languages are the most commonly spoken two of the Finno-Ugric group (Estonian is the third) and of the wider Uralic group. Both are difficult to learn for those of us steeped in the syntax of Indo-European languages, agglutinating suffixes instead of using prepositions, eschewing gender and staying singular after a number.

Quite when the Finns and the Hungarians parted company is uncertain. The former struggled north-westwards towards Finland and developed a taste for vodka. The latter rode south-westwards towards the Carpathian basin and developed a liking for palinka. Both are unusually morose people. Over the few thousand years that have passed, the vocabularies of their languages have diverged so much that neither understands the other one today. They share only a certain intonation and syntactical logic.

Differences were thrown into sharp relief in recent days by the attitudes and behaviour of their two Prime Ministers, Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, defensive in tone, disdainful and unwelcoming of the thousands of refugees trekking across his country, Finnish Prime Minister Juha Sipila, generously offering one of his own houses to new arrivals in Finland.

Orban

Viktor Orban

sipila

Juha Sipila

Hungary’s government has inflicted serious reputational damage on its country through its behaviour towards those fleeing war-torn Syria and other hotspots. ‘We must preserve the Christian character of Europe,’ Viktor Orban protests, but the Christian message is one of compassion and generosity, not mistrust and contempt. Hungarian xenophobia, at least as voiced by the government and a few toxic right-wing groups, is offensively ugly and not, in the end, pragmatic.

Consider the behaviour of senior police officers welcoming migrants as they crossed the border into Austria, ushering footsore families towards tables of food, clothes and shoes, and then on to the trains that took them to Vienna and Munich. Their role was protective and liberating.  By contrast, Hungarian officials attempted only to contain the thousands of migrants stranded at Keleti Station in Budapest, or held in bleak camps devoid of comfort and sustenance, not to support or assist them.

I watched an interview with an Iraqi migrant on BBC News, and I take comfort in the fact that he praised the kindness of individual Hungarians, reserving his anger only for institutional Hungary, the tone and actions of the Hungarian government not the people. This is my experience too. There is kindness in Hungary and news stories showed many Hungarians offering food at the roadside to those who left the city to walk from Budapest to the border.

On Sunday a convoy of Austrian cars crossed the border into Hungary to pick up refugees and take them back to Austria. So many generous gestures, Christian or just straightforwardly humane, but not a word of kindness from Mr Orban.

The unity of the European Union is an artificial construct. It isn’t something we feel instinctively. The idea of ‘European Values’ that supposedly unites us means one thing to one nation, another to another.

The founding/joining emotions of the early members were formed in the aftermath of the Second World War. Though the Coal and Steel Union and, later, the European Economic Community, were ostensibly economic institutions, it was a determination to avoid conflict based on narrow national interest or racial identity that bound these nations together. The enthusiastic welcome offered by Germany and Austria to arriving migrants reflects their sense of history, and the shadow still cast over their countries by the Holocaust.

The accession motives of newer members, particularly those of the former Soviet Bloc, were not emotional. They were based on economic, political and military expediency.

The fragility of the European Union has never been more apparent than in recent months. ‘European Values’ are lamentably ill defined. Desperate references to ‘solidarity’ by leaders of the founding members mean little to the Visegrad Four. They understand each other no more deeply than the Finns and Hungarians understand each other’s language, however much of the past they share.