June 09, 2009

Palm and Bing Triumph Over Low Bars They Set for Themselves

Amidst the buzz from Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference that took over the tech news world today, in the shadows, something very weird has happened. Companies that were once market leaders, and then, later, laughed at as the ugly stepchildren in tech, are being championed once again. And this time, they are being lauded not because they are the best necessarily, but because they are doing a good enough job to avoid ridicule - a good enough job for us to praise them for not completely being full of fail. Of course, I'm talking about Palm's new Pre and Microsoft's latest search entry, Bing.

I have never seen, touched or tasted a Palm Pre. I've heard they are hard to come by, and they were only available initially to a select list of reviewers. So far, the reviews are good, and the Pre is being seen as a real challenger to the iPhone. While we all ignore the traditional market leaders, like Nokia, Sony Ericsson or Motorola, it is Palm, Apple and Google who have us talking about phones. And Palm, despite being brand new and having an application store with a few dozen applications, compared with the tens of thousands on the iTunes Store, is giving people pause because it is even coming up at all. We had left them for dead, and they are rising like Lazarus, becoming part of the conversation, when most of us expected them to just go away.

Similarly, Microsoft's Bing continues to get positive writeups as people realize you can search with it and not suffer a fatal disk error. Over the weekend, a site was built that showed Bing going head to head with Google and Yahoo!, in a blind test, and doing very well, more so than likely any of us would have anticipated. While it still was losing, the results, showing it competitive at all, were enough to change our perceptions a bit - after years of seeing Microsoft unable to impress us while under assault from Mountain View.

It's quite odd, really. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that much of the tech blogosphere likes so much to rally around failures that when something miraculous like Bing being ahead of Yahoo! search in market share for a 24-hour period happens, it becomes front page news - or that the Pre actually had people waiting in line for its debut. We were all prepared to write about the disaster, so when something resembling a middling success struck, it caught us all by surprise.

But a few days of positive headlines and friendly nods cannot a market share leader make.

Palm wades into a hostile cell phone environment where Apple leads in mindshare and has the ears of thousands of developers looking to make serious coin. Google has extended their reach to many different applications beyond vanilla search - from YouTube to Google Reader, GMail, Maps, Earth, Docs and so much more, making replacing a search engine or swapping out mobile phones, once a choice has been made, that much more difficult. As I wrote on FriendFeed, and said in Jesse Stay's first podcast tonight, even if the Pre and the iPhone were feature equal, it's the integration with iTunes and all its applications that makes the difference for me now. I'm invested in this platform, and I'd venture a guess that a ton of other people are too, AT&T or not.

As for Bing? Google is the default search engine in my Safari. I trust Google to get the right results, and even catch myself searching it for results from my own blog posts' history often. Bing is a cute alternative - something to use if Google ever ticks me off, or magically, goes down for any extended period. But it hasn't delivered the "wow" experience that tells me a good reason to switch. Microsoft may have built a better mousetrap than their previous models, but they don't have enough bait.

Microsoft and Palm. One, the current and longtime leader in operating systems and office software. The other, the onetime leader in handheld operating systems. Now, today, both have tarnished brands looking for a little spitshine. They may have gotten a little buffing, but not enough to have me seeing them in a new light.

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