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Google, Microsoft go head to head in Santa-tracking tech race

Naughty Google hopes to steal NORAD's thunder

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Competition between Google and Microsoft keeps heating up, and this Christmas Eve children will be caught in the crossfire as the two tech giants battle to see which can keep the tightest tabs on Santa Claus as he pilots his sleigh around the globe.

Since 1955, the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) has tracked the progress of the red-clad Yuletide icon as he plays havoc with global air traffic during his annual mission to deliver Christmas presents to children everywhere.

NORAD's Santa Tracker began life as a telephone hotline*, but for the last five years it has offered a web-based version of the service powered by mapping data provided by Google Maps.

The agency's contract with Google ended this year, however, and it wasted no time jumping ship to the Chocolate Factory's biggest rival for 2012's St. Nick–spotting software.

Not only is this year's web-based NORAD Santa Tracker powered by Bing Maps and Microsoft's Windows Azure cloud platform, but Redmond has also partnered with the agency to develop additional sleigh-locating apps for Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8, according to a press release issued on Wednesday.

In a statement, Microsoft account team unit manager Dana Barnes said that Microsoft's experience supporting NORAD's day-to-day activities during the rest of the year was what gave the agency the confidence that Redmond could pull off a project as important as the Santa Tracker.

Not content to be outdone, Google has announced its own version of a Santa Claus–locating service, the Google Santa Tracker. This one is naturally still powered by Google Maps and other Googly technologies, and it includes an interactive "Santa's Village" HTML app that children can explore while they count down the seconds until Santa's takeoff.

"On Christmas Eve we'll be proudly showcasing a preview of Santa's dashboard – the technology that powers his sleigh during his around-the-world journey," Google reps said in a statement. "Santa's dashboard – featuring the latest and greatest in Google Maps technology and sleigh engineering – will allow you to follow his progress around the world, and also learn a little about some of his stops along the way."

Chocolate Factory elves have also collaborated with their cousins at the North Pole to develop a Chrome extension that embeds the Santa Tracker directly into the browser.

While this apparent effort to draw attention away from the Microsoft-powered service may raise eyebrows, however, Google is being a downright Grinch on the mobile front. While NORAD has released Santa Tracker apps for Android and iOS in addition to Windows Phone, the Chocolate Factory's tracker app is for Android only.

This Reg hack can't help but note such selfish behavior notoriously doesn't go over well with a certain white-bearded holiday ambassador. The Chocolate Factory may have the technology to track St. Nick's progress, but if it insists on dragging Christmastime into the competition between itself, Apple, and Microsoft, it may well find that all Santa has to deliver when he lands in Mountain View will be a few shovelfuls of coal. ®

Bootnote

* It's amusing to note that NORAD's Santa-tracking service actually began unintentionally. In 1955, a Sears, Roebuck & Co. department store ran an advertisement inviting children to call Santa Claus, but misprinted the phone number as one belonging to an Air Defense Command hotline normally reserved for major emergencies. 

Colonel Harry Shoup, who was manning the hotline that night, eventually realized why he was getting so many wrong numbers and decided to play along, checking the radar and relaying Santa's location to the children who called. NORAD decided to continue the practice in following years, and today it considers it a "goodwill military outreach program."

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