Technology's big hitters battle it out

The war between Google, Apple and Microsoft is hotting up thanks to new search engines, unexpected alliances and accusations of Soviet-style tactics

The global triumvirate of Microsoft, Google and Apple, each masters of a particular technological craft, could be looking toward an unexpected realignment. It does not yet register as a revolution but in the three months since the launch of Microsoft's well-received search engine Bing, the much-maligned software giant has started to make inroads on market behemoth Google and is now looking to make gains on Apple – which has been making bizarre missteps of its own and has tarnished its closely-managed reputation for hipster cool – in the area of high-end PCs and laptops.

After years of near-misses and lacklustre products, Microsoft is winning critical plaudits – for a new generation of the Windows operating system, Windows 7, for Bing, for its Zune music player and new Xbox software, for Office 2010 and several new editions of software aimed at the profitable corporate market.

"There's a lot positive things happening at the end of this year and the beginning of next that a lot of pundits don't properly appreciate," says Robert Helm, managing vice president of research at Directions on Microsoft, an independent firm of analysts. "Microsoft has a wave of strong new products and with recent developments like the Yahoo deal its definitely positioned for a resurgence when the economy turns."

Perhaps most surprising for everyone accustomed to Microsoft's second-tier reputation, was the launch in June of its Google-competing search engine. While the industry awaits the arrival of the potentially game-changing Facebook Search, Bing has won uncommon praise.

Despite its strange name, Bing is much like Google (there's a website to compare the two, bing-vs-google.com). The search box and options – web, images, videos, news, shopping and maps – are much the same. Yet the typically-unimpressed technology critics have come out for the newcomer.

"Here's the shocker," wrote the New York Times David Pogue. "In many ways, Bing is better." Bing's superiority over Google in, say, offering previews of videos or in travel reservations, has yet to be matched in news search or maps. But the Microsoft product's strong innovation, where a pop-up balloon showing you the first few paragraphs of a search result without having to open the page itself, is proving popular.

Says web consultant Craig Stoltz: "In some ways, the search experience with Bing is better than Google. It seems like Bing returns shorter, more valuable results. Google returns millions of results but a lot of them are pretty useless."

The company's 10-year pact with Yahoo gives Microsoft control of Yahoo's search business. Instead of forking over $47bn for Yahoo – the price at which negotiations floundered last year – Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer struck the deal for virtually no money down – and that despite Yahoo's boast that an agreement could only be made for "buckets of cash". Now Ballmer says Microsoft can "swing for the fences" against the mighty Google.

Bing's 10 per cent share of the search market compared to Google's 67 per cent hardly makes Microsoft a direct threat. But, says Helm, with Yahoo's share of the market added, Bing is now impossible for advertisers to ignore.

"The most important thing about the Yahoo-Microsoft deal is that it means Microsoft can still give Google competition and at least nibble at its lunch. The really critical thing about Bing is in preventing Google from hurting Microsoft in other areas."

Is it too soon to call Microsoft cool? Probably. But Keith Richman of Break.com says: "Suddenly you don't feel like a moron for saying you use a Microsoft product." Still, Microsoft's plans to launch company-branded stores of its own has been met with derision. Analyst Charles Wolf recently tore into Microsoft, saying the company's claim to innovation was false: "The company's true genius has stemmed from its ability to copy the ideas of others."

Certainly, the computer industry needs a hit from Microsoft. From chip-makers to manufacturers, the software giant hasn't given consumers, coprorate or personal, reason to spend. Mostly its been the opposite: consumers rushed to uninstall Vista and replace it with the older, more reliable XP.

If Windows 7 is as good as critics say and with personal computing rapidly moving toward inexpensive netbooks – essentially smaller, lighter, minimalist laptops – Microsoft may suddenly find itself on the right side of the play, while Apple could find it increasingly hard to justify the steep price differential in its products.

Despite Apple's massively successful iPhone, the company still needs a new product to drive sales of its laptops and computers. The iPod is now an old product, and the anticipated Apple tablet-style reader is yet to emerge. In all probability says Helm, the netbook computer is no benefit to either Microsoft or Apple. "They'd like the category to go away altogether. The low price of netbooks doesn't benefit either company – they'd prefer to sell more expensive laptops with more expensive software editions." Nonetheless, Helm adds, the laptop and PC business is critical to Microsoft, especially since Apple has taken a strong lead in handheld computing.

"Apple continues to make progress with premium PCs and laptops and Microsoft would like some of that money back," he says. "The Apple iPhone continues to make huge strides in the mobile realm – an area where Microsoft was always a strong contender but where it now seems to be relegated to back of the pack. Compared to that, any PR gains Microsoft has made are pretty minor."

Still, Apple's own flaws may end up benefiting Microsoft. The dark side of Apple, that of a secretive, fiercely-disciplined and highly authoritarian firm – a virtual cult of personality under Steve Jobs – is becoming more evident. Apple-watching has always been akin to looking for clues to Soviet leadership in the May Red Square parades. In the past, the company's credo of secrecy served no greater purpose than a kind of tech-showbusiness, but it has now drawn Apple into a nightmare of regulatory and PR problems.

The US Securities and Exchange Commission is currently investigating whether the company misled investors and breached rules for publicly- traded firms when, in January, it announced that its CEO Steve Jobs was taking leave for a "nutritional imbalance". In June, it came to light that Jobs had, in fact, had received an emergency liver transplant.

In the past, Apple has successfully shut down websites releasing news of new products. Now that the company is doing business with thousands of independent developers of iPhone applications, more stories of Apple's tough business practices – the darker side of the company – are leaking out.

The Times's Pogue, usually a fan of the company, writes that the company's mask "is starting to slip" and he accused the Cupertino, California firm of "heavy-handed, Soviet information-control". At issue are applications – apps – that Apple wishes to exclude from the iPhone, including Google Voice, a potentially revolutionary long-distance texting and voice-mail management system.

The move prompted the resignation of Google CEO Eric Schmidt from Apple's board of directors. One of Jobs' top lieutenants, Phil Schiller, was dispatched to counter fierce criticism among Apple fans that the company was acting for AT&T, the US cellphone carrier. Still, Apple, which has sold more than a billion apps since the online store was launched a year ago, has not only angered critics and customers, it has laid down a challenge to programmers to go round or "jailbreak" the block.

Ironic, perhaps, that similar charges that were once levelled at Microsoft are now aimed at Apple. Microsoft is now viewed as a bumbling giant, not the evil monopolist of the browser war era. Even the image of the hopeless Microsoft, carefully and expensively promoted by Apple, is beginning to look dated.

Of course part of Bing's appeal is that it's not Google, which has become predictable in its terms of reference. If Microsoft can position its products as efficient and dependable (which for most people is all that a computer and the internet needs to be) then at least Bill Gates will be less vexed by Apple's relentless appeal to cool. Most critics says Microsoft will never be able to win the battle for customers seeking to enhance their identity with technology.

It may still be too early to call a Microsoft revival but Apple's credo "Think Different" is tarnished and the search business has a new player.

"Microsoft has the most diverse and biggest business and can take the most damage," says Helm. "It's still the hardest to hurt and not dying – or at least being the last one standing – is the most important characteristic of a technology company."

Sport
Louis van Gaal and Arsene Wenger
footballLIVE: All the latest from today's Premier League matches
News
newsNew images splice vintage WWII photos with modern-day setting
Arts and Entertainment
The star dances on a balcony in the video
music
Arts and Entertainment
Jerry Hall (Hand out press photograph provided by jackstanley@theambassadors.com)
theatre
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Gadgets & Tech

    Recruitment Genius: Senior Project Manager

    £45000 - £65000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

    Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Executive

    £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Customer Service Executive is required...

    Ashdown Group: Junior SQL DBA - London - £39,000

    £37000 - £39000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: SQL Database Administrato...

    Recruitment Genius: PHP Developer

    £26000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Expanding creative studio requi...

    Day In a Page

    US immigration: President Obama ready to press ahead with long-promised plan to overhaul 'broken system' - but will it get past a Republican-controlled Congress?

    Immigration: Obama's final frontier

    The President is ready to press ahead with the long-promised plan to overhaul America's 'broken system' - but will it get past a Republican-controlled Congress?
    Bill Cosby rape allegations explained: Why are these allegations coming out now? Why didn’t these women come forward earlier? And why has nobody taken legal action?

    Bill Cosby rape allegations explained

    Why are these allegations coming out now? Why has nobody taken legal action? And what happens next for the man once thought of as 'America's Dad'
    Four years of excruciating seizures caused by the 1cm tapeworm found burrowing through a man's brain

    You know that headache you’ve got?

    Four years of excruciating seizures caused by the 1cm tapeworm found burrowing through a man's brain
    Travelling to work by scooter is faster than walking and less sweaty than cycling, so why aren’t we all doing it?

    Scoot commute

    Travelling to work by scooter is faster than walking and less sweaty than cycling, so why aren’t we all doing it?
    Paul Robeson: The story of how an American icon was driven to death to be told in film

    The Paul Robeson story

    How an American icon was driven to death to be told in film
    10 best satellite navigation systems

    Never get lost again: 10 best satellite navigation systems

    Keep your vehicle going in the right direction with a clever device
    Paul Scholes column: England must learn to keep possession and dictate games before they are exposed by the likes of Germany and Brazil

    Paul Scholes column

    England must learn to keep possession and dictate games before they are exposed by the likes of Germany and Brazil
    Michael Dawson: I’ll thank Spurs after we win says defender as he prepares to return with Hull

    Michael Dawson: I’ll thank Spurs after we win

    Hull defender faces his struggling former club on Sunday ready to show what they are missing. But he says he will always be grateful to Tottenham
    Frank Warren column: Dr Wu has big plans for the professionals yet he should stick to the amateur game

    Frank Warren column

    Dr Wu has big plans for the professionals yet he should stick to the amateur game
    Synagogue attack: Fear unites both sides of Jerusalem as minister warns restoring quiet could take 'months'

    Terror unites Jerusalem after synagogue attack

    Rising violence and increased police patrols have left residents of all faiths looking over their shoulders
    Medecins sans Frontieres: The Ebola crisis has them in the headlines, but their work goes far beyond West Africa

    'How do you carry on? You have to...'

    The Ebola crisis has Medecins sans Frontieres in the headlines, but their work goes far beyond West Africa
    Isis extends its deadly reach with suicide bombing in Kurdish capital

    Isis extends its deadly reach with suicide bombing in Kurdish capital

    Residents in what was Iraq’s safest city fear an increase in jihadist attacks, reports Patrick Cockburn
    Underwater photography competition winners 2014 - in pictures

    'Mysterious and inviting' shot of diver wins photography competition

    Stunning image of cenote in Mexico takes top prize
    Sir John Major: Negative West End portrayals of politicians put people off voting

    Sir John Major hits out at theatres

    Negative West End portrayals of politicians put people off voting
    Kicking Barbie's butt: How the growth of 3D printing enabled me to make an army of custom-made figurines

    Kicking Barbie's butt

    How the growth of 3D printing enabled toy-designer to make an army of custom-made figurines