Microsoft and Google are at it again: Who’s Scroogling Who

So Microsoft and Google are fighting about YouTube again. If you don’t remember the original battle, I’ll give a synopsis.

During the early days of WP7, MS shipped the phones with a YouTube “app” that really just redirected you to the mobile YouTube site, because Google prevented access to the same “metadata” that Android and iOS has, and therefore a conventional app was not possible. MS further filed an anti-trust complaint with the Euopean Union, stating that “Without proper access to YouTube, Bing and other search engines cannot stand with Google on an equal footing in returning search results with links to YouTube videos and that, of course, drives more users away from competitors and to Google.” Of course, this complaint went nowhere, and nothing really changed, despite MS’s promise, earlier this year, that they are still seeking resolution. Well things got a bit more heated in May, when MS released their own app…without ads and with an offline viewing option.

For those who don’t know, Google does not sanction either of these things and they are both against the terms of service agreement, but typically some 3rd party app makers somehow manage to put in offline viewing options and even prevent ads. But, while Google is willing to let Joe Schmo app developer do his thing for a couple bucks, they certainly wouldn’t and shouldn’t tolerate Microsoft doing this. The hilarious twist is that Microsoft basically built an app around what they had been using all along, the mobile YouTube website, which has never show ads before. However, Microsoft did reverse engineer a Google API, which is fairly shady. But in any case, Microsoft was clearly trying to get Google’s attention, and they did.

On May 16th, Google’s Larry Page got up on stage at Google I/O and demanded that tech companies stop bickering about little things and described a dreamy vision where people were free to experiment and build radical new things and not be afraid of patent lawsuits. At the same time, Google sent a cease and desist letter to Microsoft, demanding that the company not only remove their YouTube app from the Windows Store by May 22nd, but also force remove it from their customer’s handsets (which it can do, by the way). Many in the tech world were stunned by the ironic timing and the hypocrisy of it all. Microsoft quickly responded in a quote given to Neowin: “Google has refused to work with us to develop an app on par with the apps for other platforms…We’d be more than happy to include advertising but need Google to provide us access to the necessary APIs” and also referenced the hypocrisy as they said “In light of Larry Page’s comments today calling for more interoperability and less negativity, we look forward to solving this matter together for our mutual customers.” Now, not to say that Microsoft’s rather childish tactics were justified, but why the heck would Google, who’s corporate motto is “Do no evil” and staunchly fights for open internet and open source, refuse to provide access to an API to Microsoft? In any case, Microsoft did not remove the app as Google requested. Instead, the tech giant updated the app and removed the offline view mode, although it still lacked ads.

On May 24th, a joint Google/Microsoft e-mail went out to multiple tech feeds like The Verge and Neowin, stating that the two companies would be working together on a new version of the app for Windows Phone and would work together to bring the app into compliance with Google’s API terms of service. Many of us finally breathed a sigh of relief. Finally, Google had taken the high ground and agreed to provide API access to Microsoft. But the saga was still not over. You see, while many of us believed that they were working together, nothing could be further from the truth.

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On August 13th, Microsoft publicly announced that the new YouTube app was now available in the Windows Store, but now with ads. Many flocked to download it and it seemed to work fairly flawlessly on day 1. On day 2, however, users were welcomed to this error message. As it turned out, Google was blocking the API key that Microsoft was using to run the app. Apparently there was more bickering behind the scenes. You see, Google really wanted Microsoft to rebuild the app from the ground up, in HTML5. Microsoft was as floored by this request as I am learning of it. As much as it would be great if HTML5 was used for developing apps, since all modern desktop and mobile browsers utilize the standard, nobody develops for HTML5 because it simply sucks. HTML5 is hard to develop for, not very powerful, sluggish, and also has a lot of limitations, especially on an OS like Windows Phone and iOS, which puts HTML content in a fenced off box for security purposes.

In a rather nasty blog post entitled “The Limits of Gooogle’s Openness,” Microsoft laid out their side of the story for why the YouTube app was submitted and later blocked. In the letter, Microsoft claims that they devoted significant technical resources to exploring the possibility of an HTML5 app, but after a lot of time and effort, both they and the Google experts they were supposedly working with, agreed that building such an app would be “technically difficult and time consuming”, which is really putting it mildly. LIke I said, while HTML5 was built to transition into successful webapps, it is nowhere near powerful enough to build a app like YouTube. To make things worse, Google doesn’t even adhere to this standard. There has never been an HTML5 YouTube app ever made. Ever. For any platform. Ever. I would imagine that Google wants to eventually transition into HTML5, but the fact is, it hasn’t yet. So why place this arbitrary restriction on Microsoft when Google employees clearly understand that such an app would be difficult or impossible?

So, Microsoft did something that’s justified, but in a snarky manner. You see, Google had requested as part of the agreement that it have final approval over any app that’s published to the Windows Store. This is certainly justifiable, as YouTube is Google’s property and they own the content. On August 13th, Microsoft released their YouTube app that was built with native code, still without an offline viewing option, but now with ads. However, it sent the application to Google on the same day that it published it to the store. Microsoft, this move was childish. On August 14th, Google blocked the API access that Microsoft was using for it’s native app, and it was then, as it still is now, broken for Windows Phone users. On August 15th, Microsoft’s Vice President of Litigation and Antitrust uploaded the aforementioned blog post, which chides Google for preventing Microsoft from providing WP8 users a YouTube experience that’s on par with the Android and iOS experience of the platform. It is a very snarky blog post and perhaps a bit bitchy at times, but it clearly shows how frustrated Microsoft has become with Google.

But I’m confused. Why the heck is this fight still going on? I know that Google considers Windows Phone to be beneath them and undeserving of their attention and effort, but why is this still going on? David Howard brings up a good point in his snarky blog post: “When we first built a YouTube app for Windows Phone, we did so with the understanding that Google claimed to grow its business based on open access to its platforms and content, a point it reiterated last year….We did this all at no cost to Google, which one would think would want a YouTube app on Windows Phone that would only serve to bring Google new users and additional revenue.” The reason Google has become such a jewel in everyone’s eye is because it gives away stuff. Android is free and open. YouTube is free and open. Google search is free and open. The reason for this is clear, advertisements. Google makes money on delivering advertisements and collecting data to provide more targeted advertisements. This revenue is bolstered by all of it’s services, including YouTube. A WP8 YouTube app with advertisements is a source of revenue for Google, and Microsoft is willing to give it to them for free. That’s a pretty killer deal and I feel like if I was Joe Google, I would be okay with providing whatever Microsoft needed for that. Bing is nowhere near a serious competitor to Google search. Windows Phone is nowhere near big enough to compete with Android.

The only reason I am writing this article is because of the responses I’ve seen throughout the net. Microsoft is being petty, sure, but so is Google. The fact is, Microsoft is known for this behavior. Google, however, is showing a real ugly side that perhaps hasn’t been shown before. I’ve seen so many articles and heard so many podcasts lamenting that “This is old Microsoft baiting and bullying Google.” Is it? Or is it Google that is baiting and bullying Microsoft? You see, Microsoft is no longer the dominant power it used to be. It’s quickly losing the only advantages it used to have. Windows is losing marketshare. Windows Mobile has died and Windows Phone is struggling to gain back some of that traction. Google completely dominates over Microsoft in ever single market that they compete. Why are we saying that Microsoft is bullying Google when clearly it’s the other way around? I’m not saying that we should take Microsoft’s side, as we still have not heard an updated response from Google, but maybe Google should be considering that it has so much more to lose over this than Microsoft. Google will not only lose ad revenue and meta data to mine, but also it’s reputation is on the line. And Google’s reputation is really what props up that company. If the “Do no evil” mantra is removed, do we really trust Google with our digital lives and marketing data? The fact is, Microsoft is building an empire of digital services to compete with Google. The more Google blocks Gmail, Maps, YouTube, etc. from Windows Phone, the more Windows Phone users, the fastest growing segment of the mobile economy, will agree to let Microsoft steward their digital lives.

Oh and by the way, if you want a truly great YouTube experience on Windows Phone and can’t wait for the official app, try a 3rd party. MetroTube isn’t free, but it has all the features that Google’s making Microsoft remove. Or there’s this free one. Or if you want an alternative, you could always try Vimeo.

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