The New York Times has an article entitled In the Race With Google, It’s Consistency vs. 'Wow' which talks about competition between the big four online services (Google/Yahoo/Microsoft/AOL). The article dismisses Microsoft and AOL as also rans, then primarily focuses on competition between Yahoo! and Google. Below are some excerpts from the article

Google is continuing to extend its lead in users and revenue from Web search, while Yahoo’s attempt to compete is foundering. Last week, Yahoo reported weak search revenue and said it would delay a critical search advertising system, sending its shares down 22 percent to a two-year low.

With AOL and MSN from Microsoft losing share and plagued by strategic confusion, Yahoo is in a position to further solidify its lead as the Web’s most popular full-service Internet portal, so any incursions by Google into areas like e-mail and maps are a threat.

“There is a tradeoff between integration and speed,” Mr. Eustace said. “We are living and dying by being an innovative, fast-moving company.” Sometimes this penchant for speed and innovation can cause Google to zoom past the basics. When asked about the lack of an address book in Google Maps in an interview last fall, Marissa Mayer, Google’s vice president for search products and user experience, said it was a gap in the product. She said it was much easier to get the company’s engineers to spend time developing pioneering new technology than a much more prosaic address storage system.

There are risks in each approach. Google tends to introduce a lot of new products and then watch to see what works. This has the potential to alienate users if there are too many half-baked ideas or false starts. At the same time, Yahoo risks being seen as irrelevant if it tries to put so many features into each product that it is always months late to market with any good idea.

“Yahoo has lost its appetite for experimentation,” said Toni Schneider, a former product development executive at Yahoo who is now chief executive of Automattic, a blogging software company. “They used to be a lot more like Google, where someone would come up with a cool idea and run with it.” While Yahoo’s processes have become too bureaucratic, it is still attracting an audience, Mr. Schneider said. “Google’s products may be more innovative, but at the end of the day, Yahoo is pretty good at nailing what the user really wants.”

So far, outside of the Web search business, neither company appears to be able to make a significant dent in the position of the other. Both companies are gaining users as AOL and MSN decline.

Despite the spin on the article, the chart provided seems to show that Microsoft is in the running for the top spots among the various key online services although I'm quite surprised that neither MSN Maps nor Windows Live Local show up in the list of popular mapping sites. In addition, the demographics are different for worldwide usage versus the United States. I believe MSN Spaces and MSN/Windows Live Messenger are at the top of their categories world wide according to comScore.

It is good to see more people pointing out that all the so-called innovation in the world is a waste of time if you don't handle basic user scenarios. It's more important that I don't have to type my address every time I use a mapping website I visit regularly than that it uses AJAX extensively.

It's also interesting to see complaints of bureaucracy at Yahoo! from Toni Schneider (formerly of Oddpost which was acquired by Yahoo) which echo the same comments made by Jeffrey Veen (formerly of MeasureMap acquired by Google) about bureaucracy at Google. I guess that highlights the difference between working at a startup versus working at a big company like Yahoo! or Google. 

I think the framing of the competition between online serves as being about consistency vs. 'Wow' factor may be a straw man. I think it is more about integrated services versus siloed applications. After all, a portal can consistently use AJAX or Flash and still fail to gain traction with users because it doesn't satisfy basic scenarios. On the other hand, when applications allow users to do multiple things at once from a single application then goodness ensues. MySpace is a good example of this, it integrates social networking, photo sharing, blogging, music sharing and more into a single highly successful application. MSN Spaces does the same and is also highly successful. On the flip side, Google has three or four different overlapping websites to do the same thing. That costs you in the long run. Another good example, is Google search in that it provides a single search box yet provides a whole lot more than website search from that box. Depending on your search, it also does music search, map search, currency conversion, metric unit conversions, stock quotes, news search, image search and more.

As Google search and MySpace have shown there's more of a 'Wow' factor when an application takes a well integrated, multi-disciplinary approach than from merely being AJAXy.