Cheating Accusations Highlight Microsoft’s Decline

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Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but it's also a popular tactic among those who can't innovate on their own. Such, indeed, has come to be the case for Microsoft, which on Monday was revealed to be copying Google search results for use in its own Bing search engine.

For those who missed it, Google apparently conducted a "sting" operation recently by rigging a few select searches to display specific pages in the search results in its own search engine. It then told 20 employees to run the searches on their computers using Internet Explorer with "Suggested Sites" and the Bing toolbar enabled. Lo and behold, after a few weeks the searches began producing the same results on Bing.

Microsoft, for its part, has argued that looking at Google's results are just part of how it makes its own results better--a tenuous argument at best for a company that also claims its product offers "a distinct approach to search."

Rather, I believe the incident underscores Microsoft's waning ability to compete on raw merit. Increasingly, the company relies on imitation, fearmongering, litigation and lock-in for its profitability. That, in turn, is bad news for users.

Too Little, Too Late

There's no doubt Microsoft was once an innovative player. Whatever your preference in operating systems or office software suites, for example, there's no denying that Microsoft made a number of smart and innovative moves to create its current position of market dominance in both arenas.

Since then, however, the company has been on the decline. In the mobile arena, for example, its performance has been too little, too late, as exemplified by the woefully inadequate Windows Phone 7. Rather than innovating on quality, the company now resorts to the industry equivalent of dirty pool.

In defense of both Windows and Microsoft Office, for example, Microsoft has long been one of the primary sources of FUD about competing free and open source alternatives. CEO Steve Ballmer notoriously has called Linux "a cancer," for instance, and the company has made patently obvious that it fears competition from the open source contender.

More recently, Microsoft created an video--still up on YouTube--that amounted to nothing more than a smear campaign against the competition.

Then there's the company's heavy reliance on patents and litigation to keep itself going. That, indeed, is why there's been such widespread concern over its involvement in the recent purchase of Novell patents.

Resorting to Anything

For users of Microsoft products, vendor lock-in has become a fact of life, as have high costs, malware, an unrelenting upgrade cycle and increasingly burdened "Patch Tuesday" events.

Now, with these latest cheating revelations, it should be more clear than ever that Microsoft will resort to anything to remain a player, regardless of product quality, ethics, legal implications or what it means for users.

So, what does it mean for users? Simply that the Microsoft name so longer signifies anything about quality or innovation--quite the reverse, in many cases. I'm not saying Google or any other company or product is perfect, but Microsoft clearly does not have quality or its users' best interests at heart.

Follow Katherine Noyes on Twitter: @Noyesk.

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