It's not every day that a demo is so good it brings a tear to my eye. But then how often do you get a view of the universe that's as inspiring as what
How you use these two telescopes immediately points to the fundamental differences between the companies. Microsoft, not surprisingly, has tied WWT to the Windows desktop, and users who want it have to download and install it. Google Sky is browser-based and works anywhere you have an Internet connection, even on mobile phones, a vista where the resource-intensive WWT can't dare to go. Microsoft's desktop-based model gives WWT far more feature goodies than Sky. For example, WWT has more than 50 different views from tons of telescopes and Sky has a measly 8.
WWT reveals how Microsoft plans to balance its need to keep Windows relevant with its need to show that it "gets" the Internet. Your hard drive can't store all the data WWT needs to render the sky, so the astronomical info sits on a series of servers at Microsoft and is downloaded to the WWT as you reach the part of the universe you're exploring. You can use WWT offline, which is great for taking your laptop to a star party in a field in the middle of nowhere, but you'll get more from it when connected. That's the new Microsoft way. Its Live Mesh platform, announced last spring, uses the Internet to deliver data wherever you need it, but it needs the software downloaded to your desktop and mobile devices to do it.
But being tethered to its Windows cash cow limits Microsoft from competing effectively against Google in online advertising. Sky is just one of dozens of Google services — social networking, docs and spreadsheets, maps, and video, to name a few — that can be linked to and embedded in your own Web site. Google collects demographic data from the millions of sites that are running one or more of its services, and that's the big prize. Google Sky opens up yet another universe of potential customers for it to learn more about and then make smarter contextual advertising offers.
Microsoft's telescope software? You can't embed it anywhere, so what's the advertising opportunity with it? There isn't one.
That is why Microsoft is going to have a tough time competing with Google's ever-expanding cosmos. Microsoft's telescope really did make me cry because it's a beautiful piece of software. Too bad it isn't a harbinger of a beautiful business model for the future.
Go to FastCompany.TV for exclusive video of Scoble interviewing Rick Rashid and Curtis Wong, as well as the demo of Microsoft's WorldWide Telescope.
A version of this article appeared in the September 2008 issue of Fast Company magazine.