SAN FRANCISCO – Microsoft is skewering Google again with scathing ads that say as much about the dramatic shift in the technology industry’s competitive landscape as they do about the animosity between the two rivals.
The missive being launched Tuesday marks the third phase in a 5-month-old marketing campaign that Microsoft Corp. derisively calls “Scroogled.” The ads, which have appeared online, on television and in print, depict Google as a duplicitous company more interested in increasing profits and power than protecting people’s privacy and providing unbiased search results.
This time, Microsoft is vilifying Google Inc. for sharing some of the personal information that it gathers about people who buy applications designed to run on smartphones and tablet computers powered by Google’s Android software. Earlier ads skewered Google’s long-running practice of electronically scanning the contents of people’s Gmail accounts to help sell ads and attacked a recently introduced policy that requires retailers to pay to appear in the shopping section of Google’s dominant search engine.
“We think we have a better alternative that doesn’t do these kinds of nefarious things,” said Greg Sullivan, Microsoft’s senior manager for Windows Phone, the business taking aim at Google’s distribution of personal information about buyers of Android apps.
Microsoft’s advertising barbs could potentially backfire. Even as they help draw attention to Google practices that may prod some consumers to try different services, they also serve as a reminder of Microsoft’s mostly futile – and costly – attempts to trump its rival with more compelling technology.
“It’s always the underdog that does negative advertising like this, and there is no doubt that Microsoft is now the underdog,” said Jonathan Weber, who has been following Microsoft’s “Scroogled” campaign at search consulting firm LunaMetrics.
On the flip side, Google has evolved from an endearing Internet startup to an imposing giant running Web and mobile services that vacuum intimate details about people’s lives. Despite repeated management assurances about respecting personal privacy, Google has experienced several lapses that have resulted in regulatory fines, settlements and scorn around the world.
Microsoft’s latest ads revolve around concerns already raised by privacy watchdogs. Critics argue that Google hasn’t adequately disclosed that customers’ names, email addresses and neighborhood locations are routinely sent to the makers of apps sold in Google’s online Play store.
Google says it shares a limited amount of personal information about customers to ensure they get better service and faster responses if any problems arise. The company says the practice is allowed under its terms of service – a document most people rarely read in its entirety.
Microsoft says it doesn’t pass along personal details about customers buying apps for devices running its Windows Phone software. But there aren’t as many Windows Phone users or apps for that system as there are for Android.
“Google is certainly the biggest challenge that Microsoft has ever had to deal with,” said Michael Cusumano, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management and author of several books about Microsoft.
Microsoft has tried to thwart Google by investing heavily in online services, to little avail. Since Google went public in August 2004, Microsoft’s online division has accumulated more than $17.5 billion in operating losses. The losses include an accounting charge of more than $6 billion for Microsoft’s acquisition of aQuantive, an online advertising service that didn’t pan out.
Google, meanwhile, has been steadily increasing profits and its share of the Internet search market. Google processes about two out of every three search requests in the U.S. and handles an even larger percentage of queries in many parts of Europe.
Although Microsoft has remained profitable companywide, the Windows franchise that provides its financial backbone has weakened as a growing preference for smartphones and tablet computers undercuts sales of desktop and laptop computers. Besides doing damage with Android, Google is also trying to dent Microsoft by selling a less expensive, Internet-based alternative to Microsoft’s Office suite. Google also is pushing a laptop operating system built on its popular Chrome Web browser in an attempt to divert even more sales away from Windows machines.
Microsoft has countered with a dramatic overhaul of the Windows operating system, one designed to bring tablet features such as touch screens to desktops and laptops. But Windows 8 has gotten off to a tepid start since its October release.
Although the attack ads are something new for Microsoft, denigrating the competition isn’t. Most notably, Microsoft tried to undermine Web browser pioneer Netscape Communications beginning in the mid-1990s. Most of that sniping remained behind the scenes until a U.S. Department of Justice investigation into Microsoft’s business practices exposed the cutthroat tactics deployed to overcome Netscape’s early lead in the Web browser market.
Given that history, Microsoft’s marketing assault on Google isn’t that surprising, said Cusumano, who has followed the company for 20 years.
“Nothing is below Microsoft,” Cusumano said. “They have been playing dirty for a long time. In this instance, they probably sincerely believe this can give them a little marketing edge and help them capitalize on the growing discomfort with the size and influence of Google.”