In-Depth

Cyberspace Battle Royale: Google vs. Microsoft

We put these rivals' tools to the test in a win, lose or draw contest. The overall winner just might surprise you.

Microsoft and Google are locked in an epic struggle for supremacy over the Internet. From Web search services and e-mail to do-it-all personal portals, the two companies have traded blows like a pair of heavyweight fighters in a brutal championship bout. Of course, Google surged to a surprising early lead on the power of its wildly popular Google search offering, and then extended its gains by rolling out lauded services like Gmail, Google Maps, and Google Desktop Search.

Undaunted, Microsoft is greeting each blow with a counter punch. With its ambitious Windows Live effort, Microsoft has landed an impressive flurry of body blows, quickly closing the gap with Google. The result: What looked to be an ugly rout has turned into a taut, high-stakes war.

The good news is that no matter who gains the upper hand, the intense competition will continue to produce ground-breaking software and services. Witness the stunning functionality and dynamic interaction offered by Microsoft Windows Live Local, the mapping and satellite imagery service that was a direct response to Google Earth. Or consider the slick and trouble-free presentation of Google Portal, which strikes an elegant balance between visual clarity and rich content.

There's a lot to like in this battle of Internet behemoths. Let's see how the challengers are faring.

Web Search
Google Search vs. Windows Live Search
Less is more. Google emerged as the preeminent Web search engine by marrying a clean-and-fast, no-nonsense interface with a sophisticated page-ranking system. No one else came close.

Microsoft Windows Live Search (www.live.com) is ending this embarrassing Web rout. The new search Web page, still in beta, steals Google's refined presence and matches the competition's dizzying hand speed, dishing out results in a flurry. The AJAX-enabled interface, with its pleasing scroll effects, adds welcome tweaks like a detail slider bar that lets you determine how much in-depth information shows up on the results page. Repeat searches get a boost too. Start typing in a phrase and the Live.com search bar presents a filtered list of previous searches performed in Google or Windows Live.

While both search engines do a capable job, significant differences exist. When I searched on my name in Google, for instance, the top four hits pertained to work I'd done for a number of different publishers. On Live.com, I didn't pop up until the 12th item. Despite my obvious disappointment, I can't help but laud Live.com's satisfying search interface, which includes a helpful "Search within this site" sub-search box for each return (something I would use much more than Google's "Similar Pages" link). I also preferred Live.com's image-search interface, which expands images on hover and offers greater context. Still, I found that Google dug deeper. A search on the name of first-round NFL draft pick Kamerion Wimbley, for instance, turned up 110 image results in Google, and just 45 hits on Live Search.

Google has done a great job extending its flagship search service, rolling out popular sub-sites like Google Maps, Google Newsgroups, Froogle shopping search, and the Google Scholar academic literature search. Windows Live mimics this approach. The list of Windows Live search sub-properties include News, Images, Local, Feeds, Academic and Products. Users can also create macros to kick off pre-built searches of specific content hosted on defined sites and in specified formats.

Judge's Card: Split Decision | Google
Despite the impressive speed, depth and performance of Windows Live Search, Google earns the nod for its deeper search results and excellent customization capabilities. And Microsoft still has no response to Google's newsgroup search, an invaluable tool when sleuthing technical problems. That said, we are in the early rounds of a fight that is going to go the distance, and I expect Windows Live Search to continue to pile up points as it grows more capable and refined.

Desktop Search
Google Desktop Search vs. Windows Live Desktop Search
Most users know that Windows has had a desktop search feature since, well, forever. But most also realize that the Windows native search -- for lack of a better word -- stinks. Google Desktop Search (GDS) really cracked open the market for indexed desktop search, allowing users to instantly unearth files, e-mail messages and other data locked on their hard disks. GDS is fast, capable and proven, dishing out rapid-fire hits from within the tried-and-true Google Web interface. And because GDS integrates with Google Web search, it's easy to extend local disk searches to the Web and Internet newsgroups with a single click. GDS also installs the Google Sidebar, a compact desktop pane that can display news headlines, RSS feeds, photos and other goodies.

If Google has a weakness, it's the text-driven format of the browser-based interface and the lack of extended file format support. GDS won't peer into OpenOffice files or files from older programs like Harvard Graphics (of course, neither will Microsoft Windows Desktop Search). More troubling is the static HTML-based output, which makes it difficult to ferret out returns by directory or date.

To see how Windows Live Desktop Search will ultimately look, I worked with the latest beta of Windows Vista. What I found was a fast and capable desktop search function that is better tuned to the local environment than Google. I can kick off instant searches directly from a text box in the Start menu. A short list of results appears within the Start menu space, conveniently organized by type. Click the "See all results" link and the findings appear in an Explorer window. From here, I can click the Advanced Search button and dial in filters like dates, sizes and locations using graphical controls. The resulting search variables are displayed in the primary search box, making it easy to keep an eye on what you are searching against.

Most important, the results can be displayed in a Windows Explorer window (the default quick search results appear in the Start menu area). That means you can instantly sort by date or file size or file name, and you can right-click and copy/delete files. The GDS interface simply can't match up. That said, I did run across some unpredictable behavior. When I performed a Start menu search on the string ".mp3," it failed to turn up any of the 4,000-plus music files under the Shared Documents folder of my Vista-based PC. But the same search from the Explorer Search windows turned up the entire lot.

Judge's Card: Split Decision | Windows Live Desktop Search
Microsoft is playing the role of a maturing fighter, studying film to copy his opponent's best moves, and then adding a few new combinations of his own. The desktop search functionality built into Windows Vista is lightning quick and easy to use, but Microsoft wins this skirmish on the strength of its output.

E-mail
Google Gmail vs. Windows Live Mail
The Microsoft-Google showdown has produced huge gains for users of Web mail. When Google Gmail hit the wire two years ago, it seriously upped the ante, offering vast online storage space for messages and files (1GB initially, now 2.65GB) and delivering a much more streamlined experience than that of Hotmail or Yahoo! Mail. Common tasks like attaching messages and picking contacts from an address list are shockingly quick -- that is, if you've grown accustomed to unpredictable and glacial HTML mail services over the years. Google has also bolstered the program with useful tools like contact list import and mail conversion tools.

Gmail stands apart with its Label-tagging approach to message management. Instead of dragging messages into folders to organize them, you can quickly create Labels and assign messages to them. A drop-down filter control then lets you view only messages matching the Label or Labels you choose. It's a slick and innovative solution to the classic challenge of e-mail overload. Gmail also integrates the Web-based Google Talk client within the Gmail screen so you can instant message your Gmail contacts. Integration extends to contacts and mapping. For instance, when I received a message with a street address in the body text, Gmail displayed a "Map this" link on the right edge of the window. Click it, and I'm staring at a browser window with a Google Maps rendering of the address. Finally, no surprise, the Gmail search engine is top notch, making it a snap to peruse large message stores and dig into attached documents.

Not to be outdone, Microsoft has decided against simply retooling its popular Hotmail service. Instead, the company is building Windows Live Mail (WLM) from scratch. With an Outlook-like, multi-paned layout and friendly drag-and-drop interface, Windows Live Mail should make users of Microsoft Office feel right at home. The e-mail service does an outstanding job of mimicking a desktop application, including familiar features like inline spell checking, which Gmail lacks. However, Windows Live Mail seems to consistently be a step slower than Gmail, forcing users to wait for screen updates and message transfers. It's also marred by graphical advertising that is more intrusive than the text-only adverts.

Judge's Card: Split Decision | Google Gmail
Microsoft is doing a good thing with Windows Live Mail. The Outlook-esque layout and AJAX-enabled desktop-like interface make WLM a more compelling service than Hotmail. But Gmail separates from the competition with superior responsiveness, a clutter-free interface, and a more Web-savvy approach.

Instant Messaging
Google Talk vs. Windows Live Messenger
What if you threw a party and nobody came? Google seems to be answering that question with its Google Talk IM service and client. Google Talk is a capable piece of software that features the usual minimalist interface, which is all text, links and whitespace. Despite the spartan exterior, Google Talk packs a full suite of IM capabilities, including PC-to-PC voice calling.

Unfortunately, Google Talk may be best for those who like to talk to themselves. According to research firm Comscore, Google Talk had attracted only 3.4 million unique users in May, versus 203.9 million users for MSN. That leaves Google Talk with a 1 percent share of the market. Yes, Google Talk can interoperate with those using third-party protocols like IRC and Jabber, but the most popular services -- Microsoft, Yahoo! and AOL -- are all off-limits.

Microsoft Windows Live Messenger has gotten a makeover that casts it in the familiar, metallic blue and white hues of its Live kin. The neatly reorganized interface puts software, services, and things like music and auction sites a mouse click away, though many users may rankle at the image-laden ads in the boundaries. In addition to capable voice and video chat modules, WLM delivers a new twist on IM-based file sharing, creating a folder under My Computer called My Shared Folders. Users can assign folders to a specific IM contact, allowing that contact to access files placed in it. Perhaps most important, Windows Live Messenger has gone cross-platform, interoperating with the Yahoo! network so you can send and receive IMs via both services.

Judge's Card: Technical Knockout | Microsoft Windows Live Messenger
Google Talk may tuck plenty of functions in its understated trappings, but there is no getting around this simple fact: Google Talk doesn't work with the biggest networks. Windows Live Messenger, by contrast, interoperates with both the Yahoo! and Microsoft public networks. In IM, as in boxing, reach is critical. And in this case, Microsoft has it.

Mapping
Google Maps/Google Earth vs. Windows Live Local/Virtual Earth
Make no mistake: Internet mapping with satellite imagery is one of the coolest things to come out of the Web search engine race. Google Maps has launched a golden age of geo-voyeurism. Now Microsoft's response, Windows Live Local, raises the stakes.

Coverage is mixed, which argues for folks to use both products. When I looked up my Vermont residence, I found that Google Earth served up a more recent, more detailed and more colorful satellite image than Virtual Earth. However, the Google imagery cut off sharply just feet from our home, and most of Vermont lacked detailed views. Windows Live Local, on the other hand, offered up sharp monochrome satellite imagery of rural areas. When I decided to view Galway, Ireland, the tables were turned. Google delivered terrific imagery, while Windows Live Local offered nothing but a muddy large-area view.

Both services dish up driving directions in a flash. I queried both for directions from Vermont to our offices in Framingham, Mass., and was surprised when Windows Live Local sent me there via crowded Rt. 128. Google Maps, playing the odds, opted to take me around on I-495, a sensible choice if you're driving anytime close to rush hour.

Windows Live Local significantly ups the ante with its fantastic integration, using color coding and pop-up text boxes to display timely traffic alerts. A view of the Chicago area even showed weather delays at Midway Airport. Fantastic stuff that is actually as cool as it is useful -- a rare thing.

Visually, there's nothing that approaches the Birds Eye View feature of Windows Live Local, which adds aerial and ground photography in select areas for a true "you are there" experience. Google tries, with a separate, downloadable Windows application called Google Earth, which blends a rich, client-based interface with Google Maps imagery to create an immersive experience. The app is a visual feast, with its slick, sub-orbital jumps between locales and ability to display the viewing angle so you can look at scenes from closer to earth.

Judge's Card: Technical Knockout | Windows Live Local
In a matchup of geo-mapping heavyweights, Microsoft makes short work of the challenge. While Google can offer high-resolution satellite imagery of areas missed by Windows Live Local, it cannot match the refinement, sophistication and just plain cool of the Virtual Earth experience. Like a WWF wrestler tagging a teammate, Google puts on a better show with its Google Earth client app. The installed Windows application is powerful and satisfying, letting you tour distant locales and toggle numerous operations. Still, Windows Live Local is such a complete package that it manages to hold off both.

Personalized Portal
Google vs. Windows Live
Credit Microsoft for this much -- they know a good idea when they see it. The Windows Live portal mimics the clean and soothing look of Google's popular portal interface. The result is an oddly compelling, but clearly incomplete, portal experience that hints at good things to come.

Both portals let users create a customized page that displays content feeds such as weather forecasts, stock prices, news reports, sports coverage, horoscopes, and just about anything else you can think of. The portals also fold in their attendant Web-based e-mail and calendar modules, and feature gadgets and bits like interactive games and other third-party add-ons. While very similar to Google with its click-to-customize links and drag-and-drop layout, Windows Live features a useful tabbed interface that can handle heaps of content. No more scrolling down to find buried content. Simply click on one of the tabs -- you can create your own easily -- and all the relevant content organized within that page appears. This is something Google should adopt.

Windows Live is off to a promising start, but the interface remains flawed and content selection is limited (remember, the portal is still very much in beta). In my experience, the custom Live.com portal loaded noticeably slower than its Google counterpart. More troubling, Live.com seems prone to inconsistent behavior and hiccups. Installing portal add-ons from the Gadget Gallery, for instance, proved an unintuitive challenge, and the add-ons themselves seemed to crash IE6 at least once.

Judge's Card: Technical Knockout | Google
This is simply a case of a young challenger facing the champ before he is ready. Google separates quickly from the upstart with a ridiculously broad selection of feeds, tools and gadgets, as well as its eye-pleasing presentation. Google is the clear winner in the Web portal battle at this stage, but you can bet that Windows Live will close ground fast.

Web Calendar
Google Calendar vs. Windows Live Calendar
Both Google Calendar and Windows Live Calendar let you create, share and view appointments, which are stored on the Web and can be accessed from any PC using a Web browser. There are a lot of similarities between the two offerings, including integration with their respective Web mail services to ease the sharing of events. Both interfaces are built on a day-planner model. Click on a date in the monthly calendar interface to see an hour-by-hour view of that day. Double-click a time and enter details for your appointment or event.

Google's entry, however, is impressively slick, boasting interface tricks that Windows Live Calendar cannot match. Click on a day in the month view and a quick-entry text box pops up so you can instantly create events. You can also drag and drop event boxes in Google, taking much of the drudgery out of rescheduling appointments.

Google supports multiple calendars, slipstreaming them into a single view that you can easily manage simply by checking or unchecking a box next to each enabled calendar. Color-coding keeps your various personal and work schedules straight. I also appreciate Google Calendar's Next 4 Days view, which lets you quickly zoom in on the part of your schedule that matters.

But like a boxer who lacks an effective jab, Google falls short in a crucial area -- it won't synch with Microsoft Outlook or Windows Mobile devices. For a lot of users, all the polish of Google Calendar means little if they can't pipe that information between systems. Microsoft also throws in handy Tasks and Notes modules within its Calendar, offering a tool set similar to what you'd find in Outlook.

Judge's Card: Split Decision | Google Calendar
It shouldn't have been this close. Google Calendar was running away with this match, with an interface that is surprisingly quick, slick and focused. The ability to create and easily manage multiple calendars is huge. But without Outlook or Windows Mobile device integration, Google Calendar leaves many users stuck on an island.

Browser Toolbar
Google Toolbar vs. Windows Live Toolbar
I have a confession: I don't like browser toolbars. Sure, everyone loves pop-up blockers and an always-visible search box. What I resent is the inevitable tide of useless icons and spyware-esque functionality that tends to wash ashore with these browser helpers. Despite my animosity, I found that Microsoft Windows Live Toolbar added a bit of pop to my copy of Internet Explorer 6.

A painless download and install leaves you with a toolbar graced with compact icons that let you do things like access MSN topic pages, view Microsoft Virtual Earth maps, subscribe to RSS feeds and tap Windows OneCare security and the Live Spaces vanity site service. Of course, a search text box at the left edge links to the Live.com search engine, and includes a drop-down list of other sub-search services like Images, Local and News. You can also install third-party search add-ons, to search against services like YouTube.com, for example -- a nice feature.

Windows Live Toolbar adds tab functionality to IE6, though tabbed pages seem to load sluggishly and cannot be dragged for placement the way you can in Firefox or Opera. Also included is Onfolio, a useful browser sidebar app that lets you aggregate RSS feeds and capture online content. A helpful tool for online research, Onfolio lets you keep and manage collections of Web content, saving them to your local drive or linking to them over the Internet.

Both toolbars include a mapping link button, which examines the page contents for address information and provides a link to a map page for the found address. This is a valuable feature that I found myself using again and again.

The Google Toolbar is less busy than its Microsoft counterpart, which I appreciate, but it's also less complete. The Search text box and drop-down control lets you access all of Google's search services, as well as quickly view past searches in a drop-down list. The AutoLink button that sniffs out street addresses is also tuned to find shipment tracking numbers from FedEx and other carriers, as well as ISBN and automobile VIN values. There's also a button that highlights text matching that entered in the toolbar search box.

Judge's Scorecard: Split Decision | Windows Live Toolbar
Make no mistake: the Google Toolbar is a perfectly good browser resource that improves search accessibility and adds the compelling AutoLink feature. Windows Live Toolbar simply delivers a sharper punch.

Spreadsheets
Google Spreadsheet vs. Microsoft Excel
I shudder to think how many pundit-hours have been spent contemplating a Google competitor to Microsoft Office. While Google has yet to challenge Microsoft's productivity behemoth, it's at least offered a sharp stick in the eye for Excel. Google Spreadsheet is a fully functional, browser-based, spreadsheet application that lets you work the numbers using any PC with a connection to the Internet. Users with a Google account can save spreadsheet files online, or download them in XLS, CSV or HTML format. You can also upload existing Excel spreadsheets to Google and access them in the Web service, though you may lose some of your formulas in translation. Of course, comparing Microsoft Excel to Google Spreadsheet is like comparing Muhammad Ali to Tonya Harding. Sure, both have boxed, but that's about as far as the comparison goes.

Judge's Scorecard: Knockout | Microsoft Excel
Anyone old enough to remember the infamous 91-second Tyson v. Spinks match knows exactly how this one ends.

And the Winner, by Judge's Decision …
The Google vs. Microsoft Web application battle is the kind of close, tough fight that produces immediate cries for a re-match. How close was it, exactly?

In a nine-round contest, Google won four rounds and Microsoft five. In fact, the result by round is a dead heat if you exclude the disputed ninth round (after all, what manager lets Google Spreadsheet go up against Microsoft Excel?). Even ignoring the results from the spreadsheet match-up, Microsoft ekes out a victory on total points, 71 to 70.

Yes, the battle is really that close.

Ultimately, the real winner in this intense rivalry is the end user. We can expect a steady parade of new products, improved services, and surprising innovation as Google and Microsoft work to slip a punch under the other's guard. What's more, both combatants have real staying power, which means we can expect to benefit from plenty of punches and counter-punches in the months and years to come.

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Reader Comments:

Thu, Oct 5, 2006 Peter Anonymous

Is this a humor column?

"The good news is that no matter who gains the upper hand, the intense competition will continue to produce ground-breaking software and services. Witness the stunning functionality and dynamic interaction offered by Microsoft ..."

The stuning rate of improvment is services will continue until Microsoft wins the battle. As a veteran of the Spreadsheet and Wordprocessor wars the rapid innovation lasted until Microsoft won. Interestingly, the next major innovation was We Browsers until Netscape was marginalized.

Enjoy the improvements while they come. Don't misunderstand, I am a fan of Microsoft, but I am a realistic fan.

Tue, Oct 3, 2006 Hector Anonymous

I'm really dissapointedd with the comparison. I think it is not fair and comparing not released software it is not the best deal. However, I can't expect other thing coming from MS.

Thu, Sep 21, 2006 Irshad Anonymous

my openion is micorosoft is loosing in the battle what ever redmondmag says, Goggle spread sheet is new a idea,so we can't compare its current state with more that 10 years old MS Excel, so we have to wait for some time till google's spread sheet reaches user.

Mon, Sep 18, 2006 Anonymous Anonymous

I think the they say that it is too early to say either way.

Fri, Sep 15, 2006 Anonymous Anonymous

Heh, big surprise that redmondmag thinks Microsoft is the winner ;)

Wed, Sep 6, 2006 Parker Anonymous

Interesting, but the boxing schtick felt contrived - especially when some of the comparisons seemed very 'Apple and Orange'. Especially so when you include comparisons to unreleased software...

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