Microsoft vs.Google: When tech firms fight, you lose either way

The dustup over a YouTube app for Windows Phone serves as a reminder: consumers always wind up as collateral damage in the skirmishing between big tech companies.

When tech companies battle over interoperability, users usually end up as collateral damage. Illustration by Daniel Terdiman/CNET

If there's a technology out there that users love, there's probably a company that doesn't want it integrated with their own services.

This week, Google admitted that it had deliberately blocked some of the functionality of Microsoft's latest attempt at a native YouTube app for Windows Phone. Google chalked up its decision to a determination that Microsoft had violated YouTube's terms of service, even after the two companies tried working together on a version of the app based on HTML5.

Sounds familiar? It should. The history of the technology industry is littered with examples of one or more company making unilateral decisions to block others' features or applications from working with their own, often to the detriment of the very users they are claiming to serve.

IM Wars
These days, there's no shortage of tools that centralize multiple instant message services, allowing users to read and send messages to and from any number of competing services in one place. But those old enough to remember the early days of instant message will recall that such happy and easy interoperability was once anything but.

In the mid-2000s, many of the major Internet giants, including Yahoo, battled over the interoperability of instant message.

In the mid-2000s, AOL, Yahoo, and Microsoft all had built massive IM user bases, but each had erected a wall around their own service, making it nearly impossible for users of one to communicate with those on another. Exactly why those companies, as well as Google, made such interoperability so hard is unclear. For one thing, each Internet giant wanted exclusive control over its users, particularly the ability to direct advertising at them. "The more Yahoo services people use, the more loyal they are, the more likely they are to come back and the more likely they are to tell friends," Lisa Mann, Yahoo's senior director for messaging products, told the Associated Press in 2004.

By 2008, though, there was a definite thaw in the IM wars. An ad deal that year between Google and Yahoo enabled IM interoperability between the two companies' respective IM services. Still, even then, not every major player was on board. As AOL told CNET at the time, "We have no evidence that interoperating with other consumer IM services is of great interest to AIM users."

Flash on iOS? Not!
In more recent years, one of the ugliest -- and most painful to users -- battles over technology interoperability has been Apple's longstanding refusal to allow Adobe's Flash to work on iOS devices.

Although there are countless iOS users who would no doubt enjoy being able to use Flash-based tools on the iPhone or iPad, the late Steve Jobs felt that Flash was a relic , a technology that looked to the past rather than the future, and held firm to the ban, even in the face of pressure from regulators and users to reverse course.

Adobe's reaction was to scoff, noting in 2010 that there were more than 100 tools available to translate Flash-based applications into native iOS apps. Adobe CEO Shantanu Narayen also told the "Wall Street Journal" that Jobs' objections were a "smokescreen" and that Apple's own operating systems were to blame for any performance problems.

Though Jobs died in 2011, Apple still bans Flash from iOS devices. Apple did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

Scorched earth between Twitter and Instagram
Once upon a time, Twitter and Instagram were the closest of friends. One could argue that the ease of posting Instagram photos to Twitter was a big reason for the photo service's rapid growth -- though Facebook, too, can obviously lay claim to that credit.

But last year, relations between the two companies cooled considerably. Though Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey had famously championed buying Instagram, the microblogging service lost out on that interest when Facebook acquired Instagram in April, 2012 for what at the time was a billion-dollar purchase price.

Regardless of whether Facebook's ownership had anything to do with it, Instagram soon upped the ante in the battle over control of its own users by cutting off Twitter Card integration, a move which meant that Instagram photos could no longer automatically be posted to Twitter.

Once again, users were the losers in a move that seems to have been made with the main goal of building a wall around a service's users. Twitter has since fought back by releasing its own set of photo-filtering tools in a bid to give its own users a reason to skip Instagram altogether.

In a statement, Instagram said that, "In the past, we supported Twitter cards because we had a minimal web presence. We've since launched several improvements to our website that allow users to directly engage with Instagram content and believe the best experience is for us to link back to where the content lives. We'll continue to evaluate how to improve the experience with Twitter and Instagram photos. Instagram users will continue to be able to share to Twitter as they originally did before the Twitter Cards implementation."

Twitter no angel
Of course, Twitter is hardly innocent when it comes to making decisions about interoperability that seem to have been based largely on control over users, or the revenue that users can bring.

Though Twitter is a service that grew in part on the backs of third-party services, as well as user innovations like the @ symbol and the hashtag, the company knows that its path to profitability is dependent on its ability to maximize ad revenues.

As a result, Twitter last year severely restricted the number of API calls that most third-party clients could make, essentially cutting off those clients at the knees. Later, Twitter said that it wanted developers focusing on ways to add value to the platform .

Twitter did not respond to a CNET request for comment.

In the latest tech company dust-up, over the YouTube Windows Phone app, Microsoft said it had tried meeting Google's requirements, but had ended up concluding that it couldn't successfully build the app using HTML5 -- which neither the native Android nor iPhone YouTube apps are based on. In other words, what's good for the goose is apparently not good for the gander.

Microsoft and Google are at odds over the YouTube native app for Windows Phone. Microsoft

"It seems to us that Google's reasons for blocking our app are manufactured so that we can't give our users the same experience Android and iPhone users are getting," Microsoft wrote in a blog post Thursday. "The roadblocks Google has set up are impossible to overcome, and they know it."

What the technology industry's long history of interoperability skirmishes makes abundantly clear is that things never change, no matter how much the industry's giants pay lip service to putting users first. When profits and control over users' data and loyalty are at issue, more often than not, it's the users themselves who end up as collateral damage.

 

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