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Scroogled: Microsoft’s Desperate and Ongoing Attempt to Play at Being Relevant

By Rodney - February 10, 2013 5

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Have you been Scroogled?

This is what Microsoft says Google’s customers and users of Google’s online services endure, each and every time they use them. Focusing heavily on Gmail, Microsoft takes pains to point out that Google’s incredibly popular mail service reads “each and every word in your private and personal emails” to serve you up ads.

And it’s true – Google doesn’t try to hide this information and makes no apologies about it: Gmail is free for a reason.

So what’s the go? Is Microsoft right? Is Google invading our privacy and going too far by reading our emails? As Android users, nearly all of us will be active Gmail customers and maybe Microsoft’s got a point?

Let’s examine the entire picture.

To start off with, you need to know this is not a new story. Microsoft has been taking the FUD (Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt) gun to Google’s online services for many, many years. You may or may not remember these terrible Microsoft ads from a few years back, where “Gmail Man” reads everyone’s email and is portrayed as a sleazy, amoral mail-man. Or perhaps the ones where another, equally atrocious human being supposedly representing Google, tries to pry business away from the wholesome and pure Microsoft Office.

Microsoft actually has a history of using FUD as a marketing tool. For years, Microsoft targeted Linux in exactly the same way (also using the catch phrase “Get The Facts”). Microsoft spent years trying to terrify businesses that using Linux would open them up to lawsuits (ironically, these would generally be from Microsoft subsidiaries or shell companies) and that it would be cheaper to just use Microsoft products, instead of risking this “free, untrustworthy software that could be made by just any old person”). It kind of worked and kind of didn’t.

Generally, it’s believed overall that this approach lowers Microsoft’s standing in the tech community but probably doesn’t hurt them in the general public and business community too much. Whatever you may think about it, Microsoft clearly likes this approach enough to have been using it as one of their primary tools since at least 2004 and probably much longer than that.

So given that brief history, let’s get back to the case at hand of Google and Gmail.

As mentioned above, Gmail does in fact parse the text of your email through various scripts to generate ads that may be appropriate to you. You might want to consider that sentence again. Google parses the text of your email through scripts. There is no human being sitting down and reading your email – your email is being processed by a machine that then uses that information to serve you ads. Ads you can, if you so choose, completely ignore.

Ok, you say – so I can ignore the ads but the damage is done: Google’s already read my email and stored information about me. Well guess what – so has Outlook.com. According to their own information, Outlook.com reads your emails, too – but for your own benefit. Honestly. You’ll note they carefully say “we don’t go through your email to sell ads” – but they do go through your email.

So, is this an invasion of your privacy? Allowing a technology company to provide you a valuable and reliable free service, in exchange for targeted commercials? The answer to that question is really up to you.

Is it evil? Well Google doesn’t think so. Microsoft does – but only for email, for some strange reason.

Let’s look at another, similar scenario.

If Google was listening in to your phone calls and then serving you ads on your screen based on the words coming out of your mouth, would that be a step too far? If you answered yes, then you would now have a bone to pick with Microsoft, not Google – because that’s exactly what Microsoft now does with popular VoIP product, Skype. In fact, they even invented and patented the technology behind this.

So either Microsoft believes that listening in on phone conversations is completely different from reading someone’s emails or they’re being hypocritical. Personally, I know which one I find worse but in reality, they’re probably both about the same.

Next, let’s examine Microsoft’s claim that you cannot opt out of Gmail ads. This is basically untrue: Google offers an opt out for their targeted advertising. You can turn it on right here and you can read about it in detail, here. You could also use Gmail on your Android phone or iPhone or Windows Phone, where there are no ads or you could pay for it, and have no ads. You could even read your Gmail in Microsoft’s Outlook and again, get no targeted ads. Microsoft knows all this, of course, so outright claiming otherwise is clearly (at best) disingenuous. You cannot opt out of Skype’s targeted advertising, even if you pay for your account.

Most users of Gmail and other services expect that their confidential information remains confidential. I think at this point in time, everyone now knows that Google probably knows more about them than they’re 100% comfortable with – but as long as Google leaves that information inside their computers and maintains their existing policies, this is ok. However, there is a genuine risk that one day, Google could change hands or be bought out or simply get new management who may chose to use that information in a very different way. The truth is, however, Microsoft’s Bing is no different. The key difference is that no one actually uses Bing, so they have less information about you – however that’s not for lack of Microsoft trying.

People basically want to know that the core services we rely upon are reliable and trustworthy. Gmail has that reputation, right now. Outlook.com does not. In its short existence, Outlook.com has had an awful lot of downtime. Outlook.com also has far fewer users – about 25 million at last count. Gmail has about half a billion – in fact that information is nearly a year old so it’s probably a lot more now.

Essentially, as you will so often hear other’s saying regarding free services – if you’re not paying anything, then you’re the product, not the customer. This is true for Gmail, Outlook.com, Facebook and just about every other service you can name, where you don’t need to part with funds to sign up. Basically, if you want cool things for free, you’re going to have to pay something at some point. Otherwise, those cool free services will go bankrupt and disappear.

This doesn’t mean you have to accept a total loss of privacy – but it does mean you have to decide for yourself where your red lines are. Unfortunately for Microsoft, few people are likely to decide that robots snooping on email is bad but  robots snooping on phone calls is totally cool. People who feel Google have gone too far should, on the face of things, really decide Microsoft have gone just as far. They’re both doing it – however only one of these companies admits it and only one of these companies is complaining the other one is doing it, while pretending they’re not.

It’s unlikely that Gmail is going to be significantly hampered by Microsoft’s advertising campaign. Microsoft’s recent BingItOn campaign likewise yielded no fruit essentially because very few consumers are impressed by negative advertising campaigns – particularly when they’re targeted against something we already like. We don’t like it from out politicians and we don’t like it from our corporations. Microsoft’s advertising execs need to sit down and look at psychology 101 – or maybe just read an Android vs iOS forum. People make up their minds about what they like and then look for ways to justify that belief. If someone has already chosen Gmail over Hotmail (now Outlook.com) or iOS over Android, then chances are, they are going to be partisan about it. People are just like that. Attacking the product is viewed as attacking the person’s choice and thereby attacking the person or in this case, attacking your intended audience. It’s a stupid move, it never works and it only continues to lower the general perception of Microsoft as a company.

Take a look for yourself and let us know. Below are two Microsoft ads. One is for Windows Phone and it’s about the product and only about the product. The other is an attack on Google. They’re both recent. Let us know which one you found more compelling and appealing.

At the same time, let us know where you think privacy red lines are and if either Microsoft, Google or neither are really in the right here.

Microsoft Ad #1: Windows Phone:

Microsoft Ad #2: Scroogled


Rodney's comes from a background of enterprise systems integration and now runs a cloud computing company. He has a love of all things Android and open and loves it when technology makes us amazed or excited. Rodney uses a Nokia 930 (Windows Phone) and a Samsung Galaxy 10.1.

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5 Responses to “Scroogled: Microsoft’s Desperate and Ongoing Attempt to Play at Being Relevant”

  1. Mike O says:

    I honestly forgot there were adverts in Gmail. I opted out of them the minute I started using it years ago and haven’t thought about it since. And as we all know on Android they aren’t present ‘out of the box’.

    Microsoft are the kings of FUD.

    Current score: 0 Kudos
  2. Jeremy D Jeremy D says:

    Excellent article. In term of the gmail adds, I haven’t opted out, but they are so non invasive that I can’t say that I remember even consciously seeing one :P

    I tried Bing, when I got my new Win8 box for work.. I gave up after a week it is either a terrible search engine which gives useless results or it doesn’t know enough about me to give appropriate results (realistically just as bad).

    Current score: 0 Kudos
  3. Ryan says:

    Microsoft’s OS is still on 90% of the computers on the world the last time I checked. That doesn’t sound like the position of a company who is in a “desperate attempt to play at being relevant”. Google’s desperate attempt to play at making a relevant OS with Chrome is much more pathetic than Microsoft’s noodling around with Bing if you ask me.

    Current score: 0 Kudos
    • Nemmity says:

      Microsoft, despite holding a large market share at the time of writing, is declining. It’s lost it’s popularity, it’s merely a commodity now and with the extremely slow adoption rate of W8, it’s pretty evident that people aren’t rallying behind Microsoft like we all once did. Fear mongering is a classic sign of despair, and the fact that Microsoft continually hits Google, a company that has never publicly attacked anyone, just goes to show how much of a bully Microsoft is.

      And, if you wouldn’t mind looking at the top laptops on Amazon, you’d see the Chromebook is actually gaining traction.

      Current score: 0 Kudos
  4. miikebartnz says:

    Quote”Microsoft’s OS is still on 90% of the computers on the world the last time I checked.”
    I think you need to check again as you are only counting laptops/desktops whereas today you need to include tablets and smartphones which MS have been left in the dust trying to compete with and people no longer feel they have to be tied to MS’s apron strings.

    Current score: 0 Kudos

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