April 9, 2013

Microsoft escalates ad assault on Google

Michael Liedtke / The Associated Press

SAN FRANCISCO — Microsoft is skewering Google again with scathing ads that say as much about the dramatic shift in the technology industry's competitive landscape as they do about the animosity between the two rivals.

The ad that began Tuesday marks the third phase in a 5-month-old marketing campaign that Microsoft Corp. derisively calls "Scroogled." The ads, which have appeared online, on television and in print, depict Google as a duplicitous company more interested in increasing profits and power than protecting people's privacy and providing unbiased search results.

This time, Microsoft is vilifying Google Inc. for sharing some of the personal information that it gathers about people who buy applications designed to run on smartphones and tablet computers powered by Google's Android software. Earlier ads have skewered Google's long-running practice of electronically scanning the contents of people's Gmail accounts to help sell ads and attacked a recently introduced policy that requires retailers to pay to appear in the shopping section of Google's dominant search engine.

"We think we have a better alternative that doesn't do these kinds of nefarious things," said Greg Sullivan, Microsoft's senior manager for Windows Phone, the business taking aim at Google's distribution of personal information about buyers of Android apps.

Microsoft's advertising barbs could potentially backfire. Even as they help draw attention to Google practices that may prod some consumers to try different services, they also serve as a reminder of Microsoft's mostly futile — and costly — attempts to trump its rival with more compelling technology.

"It's always the underdog that does negative advertising like this, and there is no doubt that Microsoft is now the underdog," said Jonathan Weber, who has been following Microsoft's "Scroogled" campaign at search consulting firm LunaMetrics.

On the flip side, Google has evolved from an endearing Internet startup to an imposing giant running Web and mobile services that vacuum intimate details about people's lives. Despite repeated management assurances about respecting personal privacy, Google has experienced several lapses that have resulted in regulatory fines, settlements and scorn around the world.

Beyond privacy, Google has been the subject of complaints that its practices are anti-competitive. On Tuesday, a group of companies led by Microsoft said it has asked European authorities to investigate whether Google is acting unfairly by giving away its Android operating system to mobile device manufacturers on the condition that Google's own apps, such as YouTube and Google Maps, are installed and prominently displayed.

Microsoft's latest ads revolve around concerns already raised by privacy watchdogs. Critics argue that Google hasn't adequately disclosed that customers' names, email addresses and neighborhood locations are routinely sent to the makers of apps sold in Google's online Play store.

At least one group, Consumer Watchdog, has complained to the Federal Trade Commission that Google's apps practices represent an "egregious privacy violation." Citing agency policy, FTC spokesman Jay Mayfield declined to comment on whether the complaint has triggered a formal investigation.

Google says it shares a limited amount of personal information about customers to ensure they get better service and faster responses if any problems arise. The company says the practice is allowed under its terms of service — a document that most people rarely read in its entirety.

Microsoft says it doesn't pass along personal details about customers buying apps for devices running its Windows Phone software. But there aren't as many Windows Phone users or apps for that system as there are for Android.

The notion of Microsoft being well behind Google once seemed inconceivable.

A decade ago, Microsoft was the world's most powerful technology company, with its Windows operating system and Office productivity software pervasive on personal computers. Microsoft's dominance had grown so extensive that U.S. and European antitrust regulators spent years trying to rein in the Redmond, Wash., software company.

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