Microsoft cites no-email crawl pledge

Unlike Google, Microsoft will not scan its hosted mail to target ads

Microsoft  has a big responsibility in maintaining users' data as part of the company's hosted applications such as Hotmail, said Tim O'Brien, Microsoft senior director of platform strategy, on Tuesday. But unlike Google, Microsoft pledges not to scan users' email as a way to tailor advertising, he said.

With cloud applications, a level of trust now exists between provider and customer that is "almost unprecedented," O'Brien stressed at the SaaSCon 2010 conference in Santa Clara, Calif. The ad-funded model for services, meanwhile, presents opportunities to target ads, he said. Microsoft, he said, will collect information on gender, age, and preferences but will not provide ads based on data directly traceable to a particular user, said O'Brien.

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"This is enshrined in policy across all our online services,"  he said.

One of the approaches for Web-based mail is to crawl email looking for keywords so targeted ads can be furnished, which can be unnerving for a user, O'Brien said. Interviewed afterward, he cited Google as a company with a policy that says it can take this approach.

A Google representative confirmed that Google's Gmail platform performs an automatic software scan for keywords in emails to serve more relevant ads to users.

"The process is similar to what all major email services use to scan for viruses and to filter out spam," Google representative Brian Richardson said in an email response to an InfoWorld query. "To be clear, no human being ever reads the emails sent or received during this process."

Aside from finger-pointing at Google, O'Brien cited Microsoft's history as a cloud service provider.

"The reality is, we've been in this business for nearly 15 years," dating back to the Hotmail acquisition in 1998, O'Brien said. Microsoft sees 600 million unique visitors every month on its hosted properties, he said.

Microsoft Office is being taken to the cloud with the 2010 release. Windows Server is on the cloud via Windows Azure, he said.

Earlier on Tuesday at the conference, an IT official for the city of Los Angeles detailed the city's ongoing migration from Novell GroupWise messaging to Google's hosted mail platform and other Google applications, via contractor CSC. Goals of the effort involved providing the city with a robust email system and office collaboration while saving money, said the official, Kevin Crawford, assistant general manager in the city's information technology agency.

Los Angeles expects $5.5 million in savings during the five-year life of the contract as well as an additional $30 million in soft and avoided costs, Crawford said. The city's contract with CSC stipulates the city will be compensated after five minutes of outage. The city also is compensated if there is any security breach.  Los Angeles also can cancel the contract at any time and owns its own data, Crawford said.

He detailed the trials and tribulations of the ongoing transition.

"The biggest thing we had to fight was misinformation," with some users saying Google's mail did not have certain capabilities, Crawford said.

"The biggest problem that we had was not negotiating with the company, it was actually negotiating with the other people in the city," said Crawford. The transition involved 96 internal briefings in six months, he said.

Los Angeles' new email system can be connected with smartphones, unlike GroupWise, said  Crawford.

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