Gates Dings Google, Yet Fails To Impress On Search Himself

Via Good Morning Silicon Valley, Microsoft chairman Bill Gates let loose on Google in an interview with the Associated Press before his CES keynote yesterday, complaining of Google's "honeymoon period" and the perception that Google can do anything, including producing a "robot that will cook hamburgers." Of course, Microsoft's had its own extended honeymoon period in search. It has failed to deliver as much as Gates says Google will fail as it branches out. Moreover, the tired lines of slamming Google aren't making the Microsoft case any stronger.

Let's deal with the key quotes from Gates first. Apparently in response to rumors of what Google will announce at CES, Gates said:

"I hear they're coming out with a robot that will cook hamburgers, too. Let's spread that rumor ? there's nothing they can't do."

Continuing on, Gates said:

"Whatever they announce, they announce. They're in their honeymoon period, and anything they announce gets hype.... They will obviously branch out beyond internet search, but I think the expectations won't live up to reality."

Let's spin that around. More than two years ago -- in June 2003 -- Microsoft announced it was getting serious about search and launched the first part of its own crawler-based search engine. We were told then that Microsoft thought there was plenty of room for improvement in search. Good spin for a newcomer trying to make room in the space, but it was also true enough.

Last February, we finally got the polished version of MSN Search. It didn't deliver anything better than Google or Yahoo or Ask Jeeves. Now a year after launch, it still doesn't push past Google, either in terms of relevancy as Microsoft itself admits or in terms of traffic despite a multimillion dollar ad campaign.

How long does the honeymoon last? Because if Google's getting a long one, Microsoft's had a long one too.

Hype? Microsoft still gets hype as the biggest challenger to Google when Yahoo's sitting around trouncing it in search and breathing much more down Google's neck. But Yahoo gets largely ignored because Microsoft is just as much a hype magnet as Google. If either Google or Microsoft fart, someone deems it worth a news story and starts compiling a table charting the smell and impact.

How about some substance rather than breaking wind? I'll get to that, but let's recap what promises and other statements Microsoft's given us over the past year:

So here we are at CES, which albeit isn't focused on search. But with Google and Yahoo making keynote debuts on what was formerly Microsoft's turf -- and attracting tons of attention in the process -- maybe tossing a bone to the search crowd might have made sense. Show off some of that expected relevancy to come. Let's have it. Wow us. Skip the video game fight. Give me a search engine shootout.

Instead, reading through the Gates keynote yesterday, search seemed to be barely mentioned. Specifically, I count the word "search" or "searching" mentioned 10 times out of 14,759 words. OK, I'll through in 20 mentions of "find" or stems of that word. That's gives us 0.2% of the text devoted to search.

Most of those mentions are about changes to make it easier to find music content and video content through Microsoft. Good thing, since they've got plenty of competitors already doing that now. Searching for things on your computer will be easier. Good thing again, but I've got plenty of tools that already let me do that now -- and people like Google beat Microsoft in offering them. Beyond that? Search is apparently on the Start button in Vista.

Yawn.

If the continued ripping at Google for being "perfect" is getting like beating a dead horse, the entire "search will be in the operating system" thing is even worse. Geez, I didn't buy that as a Google killer back in 2003 and before. Nor since then has it proved a killer knockout. As a reminder, search is on the Start button in XP right now. It was built into the menu of Windows 98, for goodness sake. It's been built into Internet Explorer since IE3, at the very least.

How about some real search deliverables? Two months ago, Gates said:

"We need to surprise people and do a search that is way better than Google, and we are very on top of that. The idea of development tools, a natural interface, productivity software ? Google is not in any of those categories. People are acting as if they will magically be in these other categories with something more than a 'me too' offering. It is kind of fun that people underestimate what we are going to do here."

So what, nothing to wow us at CES? Do we have to go into another year of search vaporware? And will Microsoft complain that they're going to get another year of hype when anything they do gets compared to Google, despite that the press attention would be better spent on comparing Yahoo to Google?

Too harsh? These are Microsoft's top executives talking -- and talking pretty bluntly and negatively about the competition. Let's also recall what Ballmer said in June:

"In the next six months, we'll catch Google in terms of relevancy."

As Gurtie aptly pointed out at Threadwatch recently, those six months have now passed. Gates certainly didn't declare MSN Search to have surpassed Google yesterday at CES to back up Ballmer's statement.

MSN Search has gotten better. There are a lot of good, talented people on that product. And the former MSN Virtual Earth -- now Windows Live Local -- is awesome especially for the ability to build custom maps that mix different types of business together. But it's tiring to hear the Microsoft leadership just rip at Google rather than deliver successes that speak for themselves. CES was an opportunity for that, and it looks to have been wasted.