It's fun to talk about tech rivalries as if different companies were like sports teams and their fortunes rise and fall depending on who's in the opening lineup. But the reality is a little less ESPN-ready. Tech companies generally identify their likely markets, make a product that will be different enough from competitors to offer a compelling reason to switch from A to B, and push for building business from there. The so-called "walled garden" approach -- and I apologize for putting two metaphors in the first paragraph, but there's no decent botanical metaphor for your usual "Google vs. Microsoft" set-up -- is simple but frustrating: You can only maximize your own personal computing tasks when every app is made by the same vendor, so all the apps work together like a happy family.
The walled garden is beginning to crumble in spots. Nowhere is this more evident that with Microsoft's recent decision to offer several marquee Windows 10 Mail & Calendar features to Gmail users.
The noteworthy part of the announcement is where Microsoft basically accepted that there are a lot of people who use Google's mail service, and they're not trying to get anyone to switch. They're just trying to get people to see how much nicer Microsoft's inbox AI is:
Mail & Calendar apps have long supported connecting to and managing your Gmail account. But up until now, some capabilities were only available to those with an Outlook.com or Office 365 email address. With these updates, our latest features will be available for your Gmail account, including Focused Inbox and richer experiences for travel reservations and package deliveries.
This is a genius move for a few reasons. Let's run through them.
First, trying to get people to switch from one platform to another for any of their daily tools is a pain in the neck. (See also: trying to migrate from Evernote to OneNote.) By ignoring this goal completely and redefining the goal as "We know you have a years-long habit of using Gmail. We just want you to be able to use it better," Microsoft is not asking anyone to do any tedious migration.
Second, positioning this as "Hey, we think you'll like our features, so use them on whatever" is a great way to promote the competence and utility of one vendor's tools (Microsoft's) over another's (Google's).
Third, getting users outside the Outlook bucket to use the Focused Inbox tool, the travel tool, and the package-tracking tool gives Microsoft a broader set of data with which to work as it continues to refine its machine learning and target a shifting customer class.
Last -- but certainly not least -- Microsoft's efforts to integrate its tools into other companies' products is a great way to train users to expect this from all their vendors. We're already mostly there in the consumer-class space: People expect to be able to export a Google sheet as an Excel spreadsheet, to use Outlook on their iOs device, to save a web page from Chrome into OneNote or Evernote, to have their Google Calendar reminders pop up on their OS X desktop.
It's been a tougher slog in an enterprise environment. There are good reasons for why workplaces might take a mono-platform approach: It's cheaper in some cases, it's easier to say "no" to a lot of technology and "yes" to only a handful of things, it's less work for people whose jobs including provisioning and supporting technology.
But it's impossible to overstate how much the overall computing environment has changed in the past decade. People are habituated to permeable computing, i.e. the idea that their tasks -- be it social media posts, spreadsheet analysis, e-commerce purchasing, email management -- are the primary thing, and the hardware and software used to do it entirely secondary. Permeable computing has seeped into every sphere where "computing" was traditionally overseen and administrated by a small group making tech decisions for everyone. Consequently, people's expectations for how they'll use their technology to get things done are shifting what technology ends up in the workplace and at home.
Apple may have kickstarted this shift with its smartphone, and Google may have capitalized earlier on decoupling apps from operating systems and making the browser the "operating system" for the apps that once lived on hard drives. But Microsoft is the company that has taken these realities and begun running with them.
However ... what Microsoft did right in rolling out this product is a different point from whether they rolled out a good implementation that works for users. There are some early reports that this implementation is not as painless as Microsoft's blog post would have you believe.
And no matter how dramatically the tech landscape shifts, there is one truth that echoes across the years: It doesn't matter if Microsoft has a good idea at the right time. It matters if they can turn that good idea into a usable product that people don't want to live without.