Microsoft goes for Google's throat

Microsoft is stepping up its anti-Google campaign, in a couple new moves clearly intended to generate FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt) about its rival's products, corporate image and credibility. In the past two days, Microsoft launched at least two separate offenses: one against Google Apps, which competes with Microsoft's key businesses -- productivity software -- and the other an attempt to capitalize on the news surrounding Google's apparent circumvention of Safari privacy controls.

Google must defend against attacks from Microsoft on multiple fronts -- they're opportunistic and follow a pattern of attempting to cash in when Google is vulnerable. It also happens with increasing frequency. Consider Microsoft's attempts a year ago to justify copying Google results by turning around and accusing the Mountain View, Calif. company of click fraud.

Then there was the time Microsoft hid behind a group working for "fairer search" to accuse Google of unfair competition. But that's the past. Present offenses achieve new lows only surpassed by political candidates. (Say, Microsoft, did you add former campaign managers to the payroll?)

'Googlighting' or Overused Marketing Schtick?

In the above video, posted yesterday, Microsoft parodies 1980's ABC comedy-drama Moonlighting to show Google is "new to the game", and sees corporate customers as beta testers for productivity apps. For those who may be unfamiliar with the term, "moonlighting" is the practice of having a secondary job in addition to your primary one. In most cases, you're not as good at that second job, and that's the point Microsoft tries to make.

This isn't the first time Microsoft personified a Google feature into a person. Last summer's "GMail Man" poked fun at Google's use of the content of your email messages in order to serve advertisements. Funny thing, Microsoft's Hotmail slaps ads alongside your messages, too.

I'll admit to finding GMail Man (as did many other people) interesting and original. The video brought up a valid point about Google's advertising strategy. At the same time, a style of marketing can be overused. In two separate video campaigns Microsoft portrays Google as being pretty sleazy. At best, Microsoft certainly toes the line on this one. At worst, the videos are so dirty, the company should hire out staff to run negative political campaigns.

Kicking 'em when They're Down

As expressed earlier, Microsoft executives seem to relish in piling on when Google's not having a good day. Take for example Monday's post by Internet Explorer vice president Dean Hachamovitch. He claims that Google uses similar tactics to the Safari exploit in order to bypass the browser's privacy settings. IE uses a technology known as P3P to protect users from malicious cookies, and the site must present a statement to the browser explaining how the cookie is used, and that statement cannot include user tracking.

"We've found that Google bypasses the P3P Privacy Protection feature in IE", Hachamovitch writes. "Google's P3P policy causes Internet Explorer to accept Google’s cookies even though the policy does not state Google's intent". If an invalid P3P policy is encountered, the policy is accepted by default. This means the cookie has free reign to do as it pleases, regardless of privacy settings. Microsoft has made the conscious decision to follow W3C specifications, which renders its privacy controls partially useless. Hachamovitch says that the company is investigating the option of ignoring invalid P3P policies, which makes sense. So do it!

From there the post takes an opportunistic tone, urging users to upgrade to IE9, which includes an additional anti-track feature called Tracking Protection.

The feature isn't based on P3P and isn't susceptible to the workarounds that do exist. The charge against Google is doubly low: P3P is far from secure, and in most cases not even enforceable; the push towards Tracking Protection is a bait-and-switch tactic, by using accusations against Google to cajole Windows users to adopt IE9.

Microsoft's timing reveals much about its intentions. Hachamovitch posted his Google-privacy accusations on a US holiday, when news was otherwise light. By late day yesterday, there were blog posts and news stories everywhere. (Well, not at BetaNews. The stink from Microsoft's blog post filled the newsroom. We intentionally waited.)

Half-Truths and Damn Lies

Google is shooting back, calling P3P "impractical" for providing modern web functionality (Microsoft introduced P3P in 2001 with Internet Explorer 6 -- right, the browser the company wants everyone to finally stop using). "Today the Microsoft policy [on using P3P] is widely non-operational," Google communications and policy senior vice president Rachel Whetstone says. Whetstone points to a 2010 study indicating as many as 11,000 websites were not issuing valid P3P policy statements.

"The reality is that consumers don't, by and large, use the P3P framework to make decisions about personal information disclosure", she argues.

Facebook strengthened Whetstone's argument, telling ZDNet Tuesday that it also ignores P3P. "While we would like to be able to express our cookie policy in a format that a browser could read, not effective in describing the practices of a modern social networking service and platform", the company says in a statement.

There are bigger problems in Redmond -- like making the company truly competitive. Microsoft executives need to focus less on raking Google over the coals every chance they get, and more on how to advance their own company. With a share price that has been stagnant for much of the past decade, shouldn't that be job number one? Or advancing release of new Office and Windows versions?

While at it, Microsoft should rethink its browser privacy control strategy, since it has little, if any, support among the Web's biggest players.

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