We’re used to seeing Google and Microsoft compete for seemingly every online service there is – search engines, advertising, maps, e-mail – but Santa?
Both tech giants are this year hosting a variety of maps, apps and websites devoted to building the anticipation of jolly Saint Nick’s arrival, as well as providing tracking tools for his eventual route around the world on Christmas Eve. It’s the latest skirmish between the two rivals, except this one isn’t necessarily for ad dollars or subscribers – it’s for the hearts and minds of kids everywhere.
Google’s effort is a sort of cartoonish digital advent calendar, where new games and videos are unlocked each day. Microsoft, meanwhile, is partnering with the North American Aerospace Defense Command to provide educational pages, Christmas songs and even videos from military personnel talking about how they sometimes spot Santa while flying in their jets.
In both cases, the respective companies look to be spending significant resources on their efforts. It may seem like a cynical question, but what’s behind it? What are the companies getting out of it?
“It really is primarily an altruistic effort,” insists Andres Ferrate, who is leading the Santa tracking team for Google. “This is going to sound cheesy, but I really do feel that holiday spirit. This really brings that out inside the company.”
The company’s tracking efforts began in 2004, on a whim by Brian McClendon – one of the co-founders of Google Earth – who wondered if it’d be possible to use the mapping tool to plan out Santa’s route. He cobbled a test together and released it to the public, where it quickly became popular.
In 2007, the company partnered with NORAD, which had a long – albeit accidental – history of “tracking” Santa. Way back in 1955, a Sears department store in Colorado ran a newspaper ad with a number for kids to call Santa. The number was printed incorrectly, though, so all the calls instead went through to the Colorado Springs’ Continental Air Defense Command, NORAD’s predecessor. The defense agency decided to run with the error so employees gave kids updates on Santa’s movements. The organization has been running tracking hotlines and other Christmas services since, with the Google team-up bringing the annual exercise fully into the internet age.
Last year, Google and NORAD split. The company instead decided to produce its own site and tracking tool, with a core group of around 10 employees working on this year’s iteration. The team members come from across departments and use the company’s noted “20-per-cent time,” where they’re able to work on whatever projects interest them.
As an example of the altruism that infuses the project, Ferrate – who normally works on Google Maps – relates a story about how he called one of the company’s HTML 5 “wizards” in London to help design a game. The engineer jumped at the chance. “He said, ‘What? Fantastic! He put it together mainly on evenings and weekends.”
If there is an actual corporate benefit to the annual Santa project, Ferrate adds, it’s that other software developers can look at it as a showcase of what can be done with Google’s technology. This year, the team members wanted their effort to be a state-of-the-art example of what can be done with the HTML 5 programming language.
“It’s almost a best practice, like here’s our technology and here’s what you can do with it.”
For Microsoft, the intentions are similar. The NORAD tie-up is part of the “rethink experience” that the company has been running for the past year-and-a-half, which is a program designed to show off how modern Web browsers can work in traditional PC environments, but also with touch-screen devices. The Internet Explorer team has created similar experiences, where the website feels more like a mobile app, for the likes of the Hunger Games and Red Bull.
Some of NORAD’s existing content from previous websites is being reused for this year’s Santa project, but it has been stripped of plug-ins such as Flash and converted to HTML 5 so that it’ll work properly on mobile devices. Microsoft will also be adding tracking through Bing Maps and integrated Skype calling as Christmas gets closer.
“It’s a more beautiful site in line with the modern web,” says Internet Explorer director Roger Capriotti. “We’ve been trying to showcase to people that you can have those types of web experiences with modern web browsers.”
Although the effort is primarily designed as a technology showcase, Capriotti admits there is a certain amount of Christmas spirit fuelling the four-person project team as well.
“You have to imagine how proud I am when I hand my daughter a Surface [tablet] and I go to the site and I say, ‘Dad worked on and built this site,’” he says. “If we were building the site to only work in IE, it would feel a little less Christmasy.”
Technology showcases and altruism aside, observers say the two companies look to be getting something else out of their respective Santa projects.
“It’s a great holiday story that will introduce a whole generation to that brand and it also makes parents more familiar with the brand, and to see it in a good light,” says Sidneyeve Matrix, an associate media and film professor at Queen’s University. “It’s great PR.”
While both companies’ offerings are impressive and entertaining, there is the worry about the confusion that could result if their rival tracking tools don’t match up on Christmas Eve.
“If I was a kid I’d want to go back and forth [between them]. I hope they’re in sync,” she says.