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Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Is Google More Like Microsoft or Apple?

Is Google geekier than Microsoft?

My last Disruptions column explored Microsoft’s current predicament as it tries to transition from a company that prizes niche technical features in its products to one more like Apple, in which design and simplicity are paramount.

Microsoft’s current obsession with speeds and feeds led it to make the Microsoft Surface tablets, which came with too many options and were a head-scratcher to many consumers.

But some readers asked, isn’t Google just like Microsoft â€" or worse? Google is, after all, the company that has a secret laboratory, Google X, which builds things seemingly far removed from its core business â€" everything from cars that drive themselves to balloons that deliver the Internet to remote areas of the world. Not to mention the many people on Google’s campuses walking around with Google Glass.

But Google’s products don’t seem as convoluted and confusing as Microsoft’s products.

Ryan Block, a former editor at Engadget and a co-founder of Gdgt, a gadget Web site, believes that while Google products have their fair share of confusion, and while many of the people that work there are very tech-driven, the company seems to find a better balance between geek and design.

“Google grew up post-Microsoft and post-Apple and had a frame of reference for taking the best of both of those cultures,” he said. “So the end result is a company that has a product-driven culture and an engineer-driven culture.”

Microsoft sees it differently. While I was interviewing Frank X. Shaw, Microsoft’s vice president for corporate communications, he pointed to how Google names its products as an example of consumer confusion.

“We’re way better than Google: at least we don’t name our products jelly bean or coffee cake, where, from a consumer standpoint, that naming is completely opaque,” Mr. Shaw said, referring to the naming convention Google has used for its Android operating system. “When most people see Windows 8.1 and Windows 8, they know 8.1 has got to be newer.”

Mr. Shaw is right. Unless you’re an Android engineer, or a Google employee, it’s takes some digging to figure out what the latest Google operating system is called.

Google’s tech culture does enable its employees to play more. In addition to the Google X labs, the company fosters the famous 20 Percent Time, which enables engineers to spend one day a week working on projects that aren’t in their job descriptions.

“Google Now started as a 20 percent project with two folks on the Maps team, and since launching, has gone on to win several product design awards, including recognition from D&AD this year as well as winning Popular Science’s “Innovation of the Year” last year,” explained a Google spokesman said in an e-mail.

But these projects can have detriments on the company, too. Google takes the crown for most products killed within a single company: Google Buzz, the social network that preceded Google Plus; Google Reader, the RSS reader; Knol, which hoped to offer user-written articles on a range of topics; Dodgeball, the location-based service; and a very long list of other products. Google did not respond to a request for comment to this post.

While Google offers a wide range of products, some of them named after desserts and many of them short-lived, the company’s products are usually free of clutter and often relatively easy to use. Which means Google is neither Microsoft or Apple. It is somewhere right in the middle.