Silicon Valley VC-dom is having a grand time watching Microsoft. It always did, in fear some time, with hope the Bill Gates would buy ingenious or annoying startups at other moments, always with respect for the giant’s impact on the high-tech industry.

Lately, the respect has turned into puzzlement. Because of, to simplify, Google and Vista. Google has exposed Microsoft’s inability to have any significant impact on search, advertising and, more generally, Cloud computing.

Vista surprised everyone, myself included, by how immature and uninteresting it is. To the point where Ballmer had to call it a “work in progress” -- this five years after the previous version, Windows XP. So immature that many large organizations have decided against upgrading and launched a campaign to “save XP”, to force Microsoft to keep it available indefinitely. The market reaction to the new 2007 version of Office has been similar: Why bother?

I’ll hasten to say Microsoft is still hugely profitable: just Office made it more money in one quarter than Google in an entire year. But, last week, puzzlement turned into something else: a mixture of incredulity and worry. Is this all Microsoft has to offer to take Google down from its number one position?

“Microsoft is going to pay us to search!” said many stories. Not quite. It’s more complicated. When I search for a Nikon lens in Microsoft’s new Live Search site, I get offers from selected merchants. When I buy, Microsoft gives me a small percentage of the purchase price, 2% to 4%. So, I set up the Microsoft rebate money to go to my PayPal account and off I go, looking for the Nikon 85 mm 1.4 lens of my dreams. (Don’t go to Livesearch.com, that’s another company, they’re probably holding out for a better offer from Redmond.) For a lens worth about $1,000, live.com gets me 6 stores with discounts in the 2% to 4% range. Out of curiosity, I try Goggle. In one instance, the same merchant, B&H, offers the same lens for less than on live.com, in an “imported” version. And when I do research on the other Microsoft-offered merchants I won’t name here, I see slightly lower prices. But… a bit of research shows the sellers are labeled as crooks or worse by dissatisfied customers. Google also reminds me Amazon offers the lens for $999, free two-day shipping and no doubt about integrity. I try another search, for an inexpensive camera this time. The results are similar: the lowest price is from a company with an ugly reputation (and recently sold to another entity). For $10 more, you buy from Amazon. No complication, no paying one price and getting the discount later from Microsoft.

Let’s review. Microsoft Live Search: not really cheaper, not safer, not simpler.
Speaking of safety, it is fair to point out that some of the merchants featured on the right-side of the Google results page are known bait-and-switch artists. Also, several “shopping engines” on the same list are honey traps working for the scammers just mentioned. The good news is two minutes of googling gets you plenty of data on these schemes. Caveat emptor.
The other news from Microsoft is Per Action pricing. The advertiser only pays if the customer buys, downloads, makes a reservation. Much better than Per Click pricing, no? No. Merchants continuously evolve statistics measuring the conversion of clicks into action. In other words: How many clicks to get an action, a purchase. As a result, they already bid the clicking business with the Per Action cost in mind.

Is this how Microsoft is going to lift themselves from their 9% share in search (vs. Google’s 60% and growing)? Probably not. That’s why they’re still angling for a deal with Yahoo! Buying their search business only this time.

For more, a niece piece by Henry Blodget in Silicon Alley Insider: From the VC perspective, here, it’s hard to avoid ambivalence. Yes, this is quality entertainment. But how does this lead us to healthy start-ups? Even a “less than Google” search engine will get you a long litany of Microsoft fumbling attempts at gaining a meaningful share of the on-line business. Do we have a Satan IV (an old sci-fi novella) questions? Will the “new Microsoft” of the on-line world be as domineering as the old one was in the PC business, draining much of the resources, much of the money out of the domain?
In plain(er) English: how much oxygen left after Goggle inspires? -- JLG

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