Sunday, 12 February 2006

This world's really not a very fair place.

Robert Scoble called "foul" on the whole Google GMail for domains story yesterday, which has since engendered a whole set of responses to his post, in both his comments and on a number of other weblogs. For what it's worth, like Robert and others, when I saw the Gmail for domains news spread I also wondered where the heck everyone was when MSN did the Windows Live Custom Domains thing (heck, they day it was announced back in November I set up a domain on it and wrote about it here on this weblog). So yeah, Microsoft already did it, and did it quite well for the record. And I guess maybe you could say it went mostly unnoticed, if you want. Not sure I'd agree, but that's debatable. You could also say that hey, it's not about the domains, it's about the GMail (which, face it, people love).

The fact is, Google is in the spotlight right now, and all the people sitting out here in the audience are paying close attention. Google plays it smart - they tend to hold new ideas somewhat close and secret, and then kick them out the door and into the pool one day to see if they'll sink or swim. This they call a "beta." Microsoft has done a little of the same, but not in quite the same way. Google is a company that has - quite effectively - captured the eyes, ears and imaginations of a huge and hungry audience, so it's no real surprise when the company does something new and people talk a lot about it. Apple's another example of a company that's capturing audience attention cycles. Microsoft, while having made great strides in terms of being viewed by the greater audience as a creative, agile and "imagineering" company, still has a bit of an uphill battle to fight with some in the audience. But things are much better than, say, a year ago. That's progress.

It's also important to understand that the audience wants a Google character - the colorful, mysterious yet well-known underdog that you're are not quite sure about, who gets the attention of everyone in the room every time he (or she) walks through the door. It's a good gig for an actor like Google to land at this point in its career, and the audition's been a tough one. Microsoft, on the other hand, is more like the established, experienced character actor. The audience knows what to expect and many even like the character, who's gained in popularity recently due to some decent films and scripts. But the character actor mold is a hard one to break out of and the scripts have changed. It takes a great vehicle to get the audience's attention, and even then the proof is in the performance. Only then can you win over a whole new audience. It can happen, but it sure can be difficult.

Anyhow, bad analogies aside, where the debate starts to break down and turn sideways is when suggestions of AdSense ethical hipocracy and bought motivations are tossed around. According to that theory, I'm beholden to Google because I run AdSense ads? Or is that only if I write about Google's new services and run AdSense ads? What if I use Google as my main search engine? What if I have a Gmail account? Seriously, people... Let's think for a few minutes about AdSense and blogging and influence and being beholden to anyone.

I have AdSense ads on my weblog. It's pretty obvious. And my ads earn more than the couple of bucks a day that some others have mentioned (substantially more, by following a few basic design and placement rules - worth checking out). But just because my AdSense ads made a notable dent in my tax return refund this year, that doesn't mean I am in any way influenced by or beholden to Google. I think Google's a cool company that's doing some very interesting things, but anyone who knows me is perfectly aware that Microsoft is a company I have many ties to, and that their products are ones I have leveraged extensively. The fact that I have AdSense ads on my site is indicative of only one thing: that they are there. If I wanted, I could choose some other ad vendor, and there are plenty of others out there.

In fact, from what I hear, Microsoft's coming out with something similar to AdSense... So, if I switch over to that program and drop AdSense from my weblog, does that mean if I then write about Microsoft products and skip over Google's stuff that I would be bowing down to the Microsoft money? Should Google employee bloggers complain out loud if that happens? Would they? Questions worth pondering.

Heck, if I switched to a Microsoft-provided ad program, I'd likely be accused of being too one sided, not enough fair-and-balanced in my overall approach. But then again, that whole equal-time thing was thrown out years ago.

Look, people have opinions, and not everyone has mine. I actually kind of like it that way.

I write about things that capture my attention and things I believe in. I don't really give a damn who's ads are running where, or whether it's Microsoft, Google or any other company that's serving them up. And Google doesn't seem to care what I write about, and I don't even think about it when it comes time to author a weblog post. In almost every case, I believe others operate in pretty much the same way. I was one of those people who wrote about the Windows Live Custom Domains when that service was released, but I didn't have to. I haven't had a chance yet to see what Google has to offer in it's new service, but when I do get to see it I'll probably comment about that here, as well. We'll see if it captures my attention.

On average, people are generally smarter and more ethical than we want to give them credit for when our feelings are hurt. The group-think mentality that occurs in the blogosphere is an interesting phenomenon, and can even be problematic. And it goes both ways. Group think leads to closed lines of thought partners, and if one thinks there's undue influence from AdSense, one might want to look instead at the influence that comes from the same closed groups of bloggers feeding each other like ideas and thoughts all the time.

And then if you think that's bad, get a group of opinionated bloggers together in a room, raise a controversial point, and in my experience the problem can get even bigger. Much bigger. But it sure is a lot of fun to stand back and watch. Heh.

Speaking more generally and stepping back from this particular debate, realize blogs are complicated things under the hood - in the content. They're really only conversational in that there's a way to respond (in comments or on your own blog). But in terms of mimicking a face-to-face conversation, I've noticed more and more recently that there's no opportunity to stop somebody in their tracks and to challenge their point before their foot gets lodged in their teeth. It's more often a speech platform with a method for the reader to write a quick letter to the editor. Not that it's a bad model - I love it. But it does lend itself to rants (hence my weblog URL) and diatribes when authors use them for that purpose. Sometimes that means grandstanding, not conversation. At least we have comments, on most blogs.

And let me say this: Robert's not entirely wrong about this whole mess. I don't always agree with him, but I like him and he's a smart guy - and he has a valid point to make. The positioning of the new Google service as being ground-breaking or even substantially original was not well researched and was simply incomplete in reporting and writing. Is the world giving Google credit for something Microsoft did? Well, maybe, but not really. They're definitely talking about what Google's been up to. Did they miss part of the story? Yeah, they sure did, but more important than drummed up hypotheses about whether or not bloggers are influenced by small-potatoes advertising is the fundamental question: Why isn't Microsoft getting more attention when it does great things? I know people who work on the teams that didn't et the credit in this situation, and I agree - someone needs to cry foul. But not with weak advertising ethics accusations. That just muddies the waters and takes the conversation to the point of nastiness.

I like the way Reeves confronted the same issue on the MailCall blog maintained by HotMail team members:

"Working for Microsoft in Silicon Valley can be a surreal experience.  Just the other day I ordered cheeseburger and the person serving me my lunch asked me if I knew that Google had invented the idea of cheesy meat between two slices of bread three years ago… and it's been in beta ever since. :-)  Yeah, yeah, perhaps I’m being dramatic but sometimes I feel like Google is going to overshadow Al Gore and get credit for inventing the Internet.

"Joke as I may, it does get to me every once in a while...especially when we've been working like crazy on something, already have it in market, have gotten great customer response, but everybody thinks someone else did it first."

My opinion? Microsoft has a lot of people who worked hard and delivered a product that Google later released a remarkably similar version of (with less features), and the Microsoft people didn't get notice. And they should be. But none of this was likely brought on by financial influence - real or assumed, big or small - from Google-provided advertising.

One problem in this particular situation might be that Microsoft's product is called "Windows Live Custom Domains." Now, I know what the WLCD service is and how cool it is, but only because I went and looked. Not from the name. The fact that I have to acronymize it is one clue that the name could be better. It doesn't say "email and instant messaging services" to me. And yes I know there's a bit more to it than mail and IM. Google calls theirs "GMail for your domain." That's a name I can quickly get my brain around. In the "Don't Make Me Think" department, Google creates and names most things quite aptly.

Now we can just wait to see if Google will start telling us how they're "innovating" with all these "borrowed" ideas of theirs. Heh... Now wouldn't that be perfect?

At any rate, in my opinion it's really not a question of ethics this time around. It is a question of audience, actors, script and venue. It's a question of who's paying attention to whom, and why. And sometimes that hurts.

Get my attention, and I'll tell others. Heck, I already do. And you don't even have to pay me.

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