Google the new Microsoft, goes to war on Windows Phone users (updated)

Google has fired a one – two – three salvo at Microsoft and Windows Phone users. Consider the following.

First, we learn that Google, under the guise of Winter cleaning, is removing Google Sync from its Mail, Calendar and Contacts online products, for consumers only. This is the Exchange ActiveSync protocol used by Windows Phone and other mobile devices:

Starting January 30, 2013, consumers won’t be able to set up new devices using Google Sync; however, existing Google Sync connections will continue to function

Next, Microsoft reveals that Google is blocking the creation of a YouTube app for Windows Phone:

Microsoft is ready to release a high quality YouTube app for Windows Phone. We just need permission to access YouTube in the way that other phones already do, permission Google has refused to provide.

Now Google is blocking Windows Phone users from accessing Google Maps in the mobile browser. Google says:

The mobile web version of Google Maps is optimized for WebKit browsers such as Chrome and Safari. However, since Internet Explorer is not a WebKit browser, Windows Phone devices are not able to access Google Maps for the mobile web.

but Microsoft observes that Google Maps works fine in IE on Windows and:

Internet Explorer in Windows Phone 8 and Windows 8 use the same rendering engine.

This last is of most concern. It is one thing to “optimize” for WebKit, another specifically to block non-WebKit browsers. If WebKit is in Google’s eyes the de facto standard for mobile devices – which are more significant than desktop browsers – then what is the function of the W3C, and what is to prevent a repetition of the IE6 effect where one company (Microsoft) in controlled what was implemented for most users?

We can conclude that Google has decided its interests are better served by inconveniencing Windows Phone users in the hope of stifling the platform, rather than trying to persuade Windows Phone users to use its services as it does on Apple’s iOS platform (with considerable success).

Sympathy for Microsoft will be limited because of its history. The company has never been a friend of cross-platform support, preferring to keep its customers on Windows. That said, it is difficult to find exact analogies for what is happening now. Nor is it clear what is and is not reasonable. Google Mail, YouTube and Maps are all Google properties. Is it reasonable to expect Google to make the extra effort required to support additional platforms? It is a matter for debate with no easy and clear cut answer.

This does not mean you have to like it. If it is Windows Phone today, what platform might it be tomorrow? Google’s willingness to lock out users of other platforms is a warning, and one that should give pause for thought to any individual, business or government entity who depends or is considering depending on the Google platform. If history tells us anything, it is that monopoly and lock-in always works out badly for users. Check the price of inkjet cartridges for a simple example, or the price of Microsoft Office for business users for another.

What will be the effect on Windows Phone of Google’s campaign? That again is hard to judge. Microsoft is better off than RIM, for example, because it does have something like a complete stack of what it takes to be a mobile platform, especially in conjunction with Nokia: search, maps, email, web-based documents, cloud storage, music streaming and so on. That said, “doesn’t work properly with YouTube, Gmail, Google Maps” is hardly a selling point.

Update: Google now says:

We periodically test Google Maps compatibility with mobile browsers to make sure we deliver the best experience for those users.

In our last test, IE mobile still did not offer a good maps experience with no ability to pan or zoom and perform basic map functionality. As a result, we chose to continue to redirect IE mobile users to Google.com where they could at least make local searches. The Firefox mobile browser did offer a somewhat better user experience and that’s why there is no redirect for those users.

Recent improvements to IE mobile and Google Maps now deliver a better experience and we are currently working to remove the redirect. We will continue to test Google Maps compatibility with other mobile browsers to ensure the best possible experience for users.

Is Google being straight with us? Why has the statement changed overnight?

One user discovered that certain URLs work for Google maps on Windows Phone and posted a video to prove it.

The video shows Google Maps working on a Lumia 800 (not the latest version of Windows Phone). I tried this URL:

ms-gl=au&ie=UTF8&t=m&source=embed&oe=UTF8&msa=0&msid=202255975001106586432.0004bb17c01b36a71a644

on my own Lumia 800 and it does indeed work. You can search for places, they show up on the map, and you can zoom with the + and – controls. However, it is not perfect. The search box is slightly corrupted and I am unable to pinch to zoom or swipe to pan. Better than nothing? Certainly.

Still, the experience is sufficiently degraded to lend some credence to Google’s statements; and there is undoubtedly extra work in supporting additional browsers as any web developer will confirm. 

Is Google at war with Windows Phone, or just not going out of its way to support a rival platform? Watch this space.

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6 comments to Google the new Microsoft, goes to war on Windows Phone users (updated)

  • momo

    MS CRM4 can only be used with IE due to incompatible JS.
    And who remembers early MSDN, or OWA, with its distorted rendering on any non-IE browser?

  • Robert

    Microsoft only cares about compatibility and interoperability when someone else is in the lead. When they take the top spot they rarely do anything to be compatible with others. Let ‘em taste their own medicine (to some extent).

  • MS’s Hyper-V web interface, just like Its predecessor, is limited to IE.
    Also MS is artificially limiting IE versions available on their own OSes…
    They’re also restricting access to 3rd party native dev tools in WinRT and Windows store.
    They’re also not supporting WebGL in the hope of promoting their own proprietary tech.

    So no sympathy indeed, and none deserved.

    Maybe Google should block desktop IE as well from accessing their services until MS clean their act? ;-)

  • Google blames compatibility issues and is apparently removing the block:
    http://www.zdnet.com/google-shouldnt-forget-history-when-blocking-its-competitors-products-7000009411/

    It’s worth remembering that Google also doesn’t allow the Google+ desktop view on Mobile Safari, and had even briefly locked out desktop Opera until its users complained rather loudly. Google has an obvious business incentive to drive everyone towards Chrome and Android, but I also got the impression they simply aren’t trying very hard to make their services work on other browsers. Just blocking them is easier and less work.

  • Paul

    The real message is that all businesses tend to behave badly if they think is in their interest to do so and not be found out, and the bigger the company is the more they think that they can get away with it.

    Microsoft did it, Apple do it and now Google are at it too. It is hypocritical for people to support Google while criticizing Microsoft (and vice versa).

    It is also different to decide its not worth developing compatible for software for a platform, and another to deliberately sabotage or take away access to features which already exist.

  • There is a broader economic and political history between these companies that goes back many years. For example Microsoft’s lobbying against Google is not going to motivate Google to build apps for a competing platform with an insignificant market share: http://readwrite.com/2013/01/03/googles-ftc-settlement-is-an-epic-fail-for-microsoft (the article is terribly over written, but has interesting information about MS’s lobbying efforts. I think it is significant that an intensive investigation by a motivated FTC found nothing wrong with Google search.)

    Another context is the struggle to establish new Web standards such as WebGL. There are security concerns with WebGL but there are political ones too.

    Then there is market share. While IE still has 38 – 40% of the desktop browser market in North America that means WebKit and (or rather potentially WebGL compatible browsers) has roughly 60% of that market. In the browser market place IE mobile is below the 2% range in North America. See for example: http://gs.statcounter.com/#mobile_browser-na-monthly-201112-201301

    When you look at world-wide stats IE on the desktop is below 35% and regularly losing market share. World wide IE mobile is a rounding error.

    So who knows? Unless you have a warrant to read Google’s internal emails its really hard to say much about their motivations. When they have been investigated they did much better than Microsoft. Personally, I’ll reserve judgement on this one.