From my admittedly limited vantage point, I've noticed a subtle but significant shift in what's coming out of the respective campuses of Microsoft and Google. And it's not so much the innovations, although it certainly resonates there. This has to do with attitude and culture. This is the touchy-feely stuff that I chalk up to gut instinct, with no empirical backing. So, take it for what it's worth, but I will say that my gut has a pretty good track record.
The Age of Cockiness Returns
Google has come full circle. They started with a cockiness that was understandable, given their immediate success. Google was everyone's online Golden Child. The founders (from which the brash attitude was inherited) surrounded themselves with an equally cocky, equally audacious group of young geniuses. The collective culture was bold, arrogant and had little patience for the mediocre or mundane. They also had little respect for anything beyond the bounds of "Google-world." If it wasn't part of Google, it somehow was less relevant, less valuable and less interesting. This was a company that fully intended to conquer the world, and it seemed that world conquest was within reach. Google was getting their fingers into everything, and it seemed that everything they touched would turn to gold.
Then, four or five years ago, Google's attitude changed. They started reaching outside the walls of "Google-world," sincerely looking to forge relationships with partners. Googlers developed a quieter confidence: less bold, less brash. They actually sought others' opinions. Now, it appeared that Google might be accepting the fact that conquering the world might be, at a minimum, a collaborative effort.
But in the last year, I've seen a return to Google's original attitude. The humility is disappearing and hubris again rules the day. It's almost as if, now that Google is the king of the hill and is drawing more than their fair share of scrutiny, much of it negative, they've gone into defensive mode. They've circled the wagons and drawn more inside. As I said, the changes are subtle, but noticeable. I believe they've grown up as a company and have had to face some harsh business realities. But in the process, they have responded by becoming defiantly self-confident and dismissive of dissenting views. They seem to once again be retreating into the safe and welcoming arms of "Google-world." Somehow, though, this time the cockiness rings a little hollow.
We Really Want You to Like Us
Contrast this with Microsoft. Microsoft was the company everybody loved to hate. For years, it was the brunt of jokes in the search marketing world. The only question with Microsoft, it seemed, was which foot were they going to shoot themselves in next? Miserable failure after miserable failure exasperated everyone, both inside and outside of the Redmond mother ship. If Mack Sennett (or the Three Stooges, or Judd Apatow and Seth Rogen -- pick your cultural context) ever ran a software company, surely this would be it.
But in the last year (roughly about the same time Google started circling the wagon) I've seen a different Microsoft. It's humble, but it's also ready to deliver. They've knocked the chip off their shoulder and seemed to have put the bumbling behind them. They're executing and cranking out some pretty decent stuff. Somehow, they've pulled back from the brink of irrelevance and are now ready to be a contender. I've had varying shades of criticism of Bing, but I've never said it wasn't a much-needed step forward in their search offering. It's miles ahead of anything Microsoft had done in search previously. But it's not this battle that interests me. It's the next fight that Microsoft chooses to pick. Given the change in attitude, I'm not sure I would be betting against them. As one Microsofter confided to me, "We're at our best when we've had the crap kicked out of us."
I have no idea what this means in the big picture, but I do know that the tone and temper of an organization is a pretty reliable indicator of future success. Perhaps I can sum it up best in this way. It's almost as if Google is already prepared to defend themselves against future criticism. Microsoft, on the other hand, is doing everything in their power to rebuild a broken relationship by impressing the hell out of you.