Thursday, July 28, 2005

VE Day

The current pastime in the tech blogosphere is comparing-and-contrasting Microsoft's Virtual Earth and Google Maps.

First, I just wanted to say that I find it interesting that this topic is so hot in the blogosphere, but it hasn't really come up yet in any of my regular conversations with the folks I talk to every day. I don't know if other people have this sort of experience or not, I'm sure it depends on the circle of people you run with. But I just wanted to take a moment and comment on how blogs allow us to toss out some thoughts and be part of a global conversation even when no one around us- in our physical or traditional social spaces- is interested. It's a whole new kind of geekdom that even puts Dungeons and Dragons to shame.

Well, maybe not.

I've been thinking about Google alot lately, especially vis-a-vis Microsoft. I think everyone is seeing VE vs. GM as the opening salvo between these two, followed quickly (and inevitably) by a legal battle over a senior VP who left Microsoft for Google. So I want to break this battle down and discuss how I see it playing out over the next couple of years.

Most of the comparisons thus far have been between the main sites themselves- virtualearth.msn.com and maps.google.com, in terms of performance, resolution, and (to a lesser extent) features. There are places where Google is better, there are places where MS is better, but I don't think there's any doubt that this is the first time that MS has launched something that was comparable to Google, right off the bat. Hats off to Microsoft- they did a great implementation of Google's idea. For me, as a user, I don't think it makes much difference which of the two services I use, though I tend to use Google out of habit.

So let's move on to what really matters- the battle over developers. The real buzz over mapping has been caused by clever developers who used Google Maps to create cool applications like Craigslist+Maps and ChicagoCrime. Most observers think that this will be a traditional standards war- the company that gets the most developers to build web apps around their mapping API wins.

At least that's the conventional wisdom. And in so far as you believe the CW, you have to give the edge to Microsoft. It was notable that they launched their developer API at the same time they launched their site, whereas Google waited and didn't launch an official API until after some ambitious developers hacked up an unofficial one. Microsoft also has its own programming language and a huge developer network it can leverage to get its APIs in wide use. Google has to rely on sample code snippets in languages (Java, PHP, Perl, and even .NET languages) that it does not control. Simply put, this is what Microsoft does, and they do it better than anyone else.

But I don't think all is lost for Google, not by a longshot. Because I don't think that the Map Wars will turn out to be an API war in the traditional sense, and that has everything to do with the way web-based business models work- namely, by advertising- and targeted advertising is what Google does better than anyone else.

Let's stipulate that there is some percentage of all map API developers who are rabidly for or against Microsoft, and assume that these people will make their choice accordingly. But for a hypothetical developer who is creating a mapping application and is hoping to make some money off of it, what's the better choice? Assuming that this developer doesn't want to go through the time and expense of getting his own advertisers, he probably wants to take advantage of the best ad network he can get- and that means Google. Contrast this with the API battles for shrinkwrapped software that Microsoft has won in the past- developer pays (cheaply) for tools, writes an application, sells it, and the user chooses the platform with the best applications. In so far as that model still works for web, I believe Microsoft succeeds. In so far as there will be a free, ad-supported competitor for every subscription-only web application, Google will do very, very well. The overall winner will be the company that can do a better job of co-opting their competitor's core competency, and I don't think that's clear at this point.

As a final note, something about Virtual Earth bugs me a little bit- the fact that it works on Firefox, as well as Internet Explorer. This strikes me as a very un-Microsoft sort of thing to do. Of course, they still prevent Linux or OS X support for their (still pretty cool) Locate Me feature by requiring ActiveX controls, but the fact that they support any other browser at all still bugs me. I suspect that this is a temporary thing, in the way that Microsoft wrote IE for the Mac back when they were competing heavily with Netscape and didn't neglect a single opportunity to pick up browser share. The longer Google lasts, the more it will force Microsoft to stray from it's Windows-is-everything strategy, with the potential for hugely significant impact on the company and the industry.

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