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. 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. 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.
"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. "To be clear, no human being ever reads the emails sent or received during this process."
Aside from fingerpointing 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.