The Google culture Microsoft doesn't get: risk taking

Steve Ballmer was right when he told the Search Marketing Expo that Google's biggest advantage is having been good enough before anyone else. But I think there's something Microsoft doesn’t get about Google culture.
Written by Simon Bisson and  Mary Branscombe on

Steve Ballmer was right when he told the Search Marketing Expo that Google's biggest advantage is having been good enough before anyone else. But I think there's something Microsoft doesn’t get about Google culture.

In the SMX keynote interview Ballmer was asked if Google’s company culture pays an importance for their success in search and he quite sensibly pointed out that without having worked there, no-one actually knows what the culture of a company is. He pointed out the benefit Google gets from being there first, when MSN Search was producing poor results - and then he pointed at the value of smart people innovating.

"The truth of the matter is the number one thing that Google benefits from in search is they did it right first. And put culture aside and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, I love our culture, I think we’ve got great people, they’re innovative, they’re doing great things, but we started later. And the other guy had that -- and I -- look, there’s a value to incumbency, and people can then go back and ascribe these things to a lot of things, culture. We have a value for incumbency in some of the things that we’ve done. And some of it, you know, which came first, incumbency or culture, is never clear.

"The fact of the matter is we’ve got a lot of very talented people really focused in and great innovations in the search area, and it’s working. It’s working. So, whatever this culture thing is, we’ve got everybody, including the other guys, moving faster than anything was moving before we got going with Bing. So, there must be something good in our culture that’s pushing the pace overall of search innovation, even if it’s pushing the other guys, who are also very talented, as much as we’re pushing ourselves."

Yes, but. Microsoft and Google both innovate. Sometimes they both come up with the same innovation; the difference is that Google is more likely to take the risk and push out a product or service without polishing it the way Microsoft does. Office has far more polish and far more features than Google Docs; but you get something new in Google Docs rather more often than you do in Office (leaving aside whether an existing feature you find counts as new, and leaving aside the question of whether it's better to have had the feature you needed all along). And the expectation at Microsoft that something has to be polished, has to reach a certain quality bar, has to interest a certain number of people, holds back turning innovations into success.

That's one of the things Chris Pratley's Office Labs team has to deal with. Pratley (who ran the Word team for years and was behind the hugely innovative and hugely underrated OneNote app in Office) described Office labs (with tongue firmly in cheek) to our sister site ZDNet US as the people who stick their necks out with crazy ideas which, if they prove useful, are embraced by the Office team as ideas they had all along and, if they prove to be flops, lose Microsoft nothing in terms of credibility.

Have you tried Google Goggles? You can use your phone to photograph the barcode of a book you're interested to get details you can send to a friend (or use to check if you could buy it cheaper elsewhere); it turns bits into atoms and atoms into bits. It's a brilliant idea. Microsoft Research had the same brilliant idea several years ago, with the equally confusing name of Microsoft Aura. Phones weren't quite as good at taking photos, so MSR would give you a stick-on macro lens you could put on the back of your phone and 3G was a pipedream so the software had to batch up some results, but it did exactly the same thing as Google Goggles. And if you jumped through a few hoops you could get a copy of Aura for Windows Mobile.

The researchers printed up some barcodes and stuck them on artwork around the building so you could take snaps and find out more about the pieces. Marc Smith (whose team was behind the SNARF email prioritisation tool that still isn't part of Outlook and Node XL which would have been the first new chart type in Excel in years if the Excel team had let it into Excel and a shared online family calendar very like the one T-Mobile is planning to launch on a 15" Android tablet later this year and a Twitter-like mobile phone social network called SLAM - and who left MSR for Telligent) had a vision of Aura letting you annotate your physical world, getting information about drug interactions from the pharmacy shelves - or just checking whether the things you're putting in your shopping trolley match the diet plan you've set up, marking ideas for Christmas presents, getting discounts and vouchers through location-based advertising, re-ordering the printer cartridge that just ran out.

As Smith put it, "I find this very handy when I go shopping. I have small children right now and I find that when you shop with small children it's very much like having your IQ reduced by several orders of magnitude...That means that you really just don't have the time to look at a product and go, "Well, gosh, does it have this feature or that feature and what is the price," so now I just say, "Fine, I'm kind of interested." I'll deal with it later, go back to my Aura blog and I can then say, "Hey, I'm going to do some price discovery, I'm going to look for this online." I now want to annotate it, I want to start a conversation about this." (Read some of the ideas he had for Aura back in 2003).

So why did Aura fade away and Google Goggles come out? Why do so many of Microsoft's smart ideas not get past being fun projects (like Flashcards or Pivot) and become actual significant projects? For every MSR project that becomes the Sidewinder x4 keyboard there's a capacitive mouse that Apple launches first. I don't know if it's the culture, or the massive power of the Office and Windows teams concentrating on serving their massive audience and grinding the small ideas under their wheels as they go - but I think it's about taking risks.

Google takes risks. Buzz was a risk - that grabbing everyone's personal network to create an instant social network about the same size of Facebook would upset people (OK, maybe they didn't spot that risk in advance). And it's easier to take risks when you don't already have a good market share to defend. But Microsoft isn't going to get kudos or adoption for its innovations unless it steps outside its comfort zone and ships more of them.


EDIT See AURA in action: AURA on YouTube

Marc Smith sent us this link to show how Aura works, along with some resources for the continuing community development of NodeXL.

NodeXL is the free and open add-in for Excel that supports network overview, discovery and exploration. The code and application can be found here. Technical questions can be asked on our discussion boards on the Codeplex site.

A video tutorial for NodeXL

A manuscript tutorial guide to NodeXL (PDF)

Information about NodeXL can often be found on the Connected Action blog


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