Google Games vs. Microsoft's Imagine Cup: Clash of the Headgear

Which tech giant is winning the hearts and minds (but maybe not the wallets) of students?

The past weekend saw two similar events at two very different companies. Both Microsoft and Google, in an effort to win over the hearts and minds of young college-age coders, held competitive events intended to get students excited about their products.

In New York, at Google, teams with names like Chicken Magnetic and Neutron duked it out for the top spot as they completed a series of puzzles and coding competitions; while at Microsoft headquarters, teams pitched apps and other technological solutions to problems they had dreamed up over the year. (We reported on Texting Towards Healthier Villages, which wound up placing fourth. Note-Taker, a technology for the blind to help them take notes in class, took first place in software design; first place in game design for Windows/Xbox went to a game focused on alternative energy, while first place in mobile game design went to a game that educates about deforestation.)

But while students were fighting it out for prizes, Microsoft and Google were, in a sense, fighting it out for a bigger prize--the mind share of the next generation of coders. How did those two measure up?

Scope: The most obvious difference between the two events was one of scope. Microsoft's Imagine Cup was part of an ongoing, year-long, international affair; those who placed in the top at the nationals yesterday will compete at the worldwide finals this year in New York, competing against teams from over 70 countries or regions worldwide. For Google, by contrast, the event was a one-off sort of thing. Students from the region were simply invited to come hang out at Google's campus in New York for a day of friendly competition. (Another Google Games ran concurrently in Cambridge, with other events expected in a total of eight offices around the country, but there was no concerted national or international push.) Once the day was over, so was the event; there was no bracketing that would lead to a grand international showdown.

Prize: The difference in scope also extends to the pot to be won. In Redmond, Washington, Microsoft gave out tens of thousands of dollars to the winning teams and their schools. At Google, the top prize were some Droid phones; runners-up got swag and buckyballs.

History: The Imagine Cup has a longer history than Google Games. Microsoft's competition stretches back nine years; Google's four years. That's one reason why the Microsoft cup draws more participants: 422 U.S. schools, 74,000 students. Five schools and about 150 students were at the New York event; similar numbers will occur throughout the country at other Google Games events this year.

Divisions: Google Games are run by Google's University Programs Team, the same group that goes to college campuses for recruiting and outreach events. The Imagine Cup involves a unit at Microsoft called the "Academic Evangelists"--more on them below.

Purpose: Google considers the Google Games a "soft" recruiting event; it's about exposing students to some of the culture of the Google workplace, with an eye towards making it seem an appealing place to work. With the Imagine Cup, Microsoft has, arguably, larger ambitions. For one thing, the contests are to develop apps and other programs that it hopes will help change the world. Note-Taker, for instance, helps the visually impaired. But it also has larger ambitions with respect to how it intends to win the mind share of young people. Google Games, meanwhile, simply communicates a fun office culture. The Imagine Cup, through the orchestrations of Microsoft's Academic Evangelists, is part of a grander strategy on Microsoft's part to give Microsoft products a stronghold within the academic ecosystem. Academic evangelism means working Microsoft into the curriculum; it means making it so that the engineering and computer scientist professors, as well of the students, think of Microsoft first when deciding to build a program, app, or game.

Analysis: To a certain extent, comparing the Google Games to the Microsoft Imagine Cup may be like comparing apples and oranges--or a game of pickup basketball to the Olympics. Each has very different ambitions. And just because Google Games is less broad in scope doesn't mean that it is losing the battle for young people's hearts and minds--and wallets. Over the course of the Imagine Cup, Microsoft awarded many free Windows Phone 7's to finalists. One I spoke to yesterday said he had no plans to abandon his Droid.

Follow Fast Company on Twitter. Email David Zax, the author of this post, or follow him on Twitter.

[Image: Flickr user hexmar; thumbnail: Flickr user kevingessner]

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