Updated: Mon, 24 Dec 2012 21:57:00 GMT | By Alan Boyle

Google vs. Microsoft: Santa-tracking systems go out of sync 



A woman monitors Santa Claus' progress on Christmas Eve from Washington. The Santa tracker shown on the left-hand screen was set up by Google, while the tracker on the right was set up by the North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD. In the past, NORAD's online partner has been Google, but this year the U.S.-Canadian command went with Microsoft instead. The two systems provide different data.

A woman monitors Santa Claus' progress on Christmas Eve from Washington. The Santa tracker shown on the left-hand screen was set up by Google, while the tracker on the right was set up by the North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD. In the past, NORAD's online partner has been Google, but this year the U.S.-Canadian command went with Microsoft instead. The two systems provide different data.

Not even Santa Claus can avoid getting drawn into the tech clash between Google and Microsoft: The two companies have set up separate online systems to track where the Jolly Old Elf has been on Christmas Eve – but they show him simultaneously at widely separated locations, delivering presents at a dramatically different rate.

On the official "NORAD Tracks Santa" website, powered this year by Microsoft, Santa Claus was in Rome, well past the 3-billion-present mark in his holiday rounds. At the same time, Google's Santa Tracker showed him buzzing through Agadez in the African country of Niger, not quite up to the 1-billion-present mark.

They can't both be right. Can they? Here's the word from Search Engine Land's Danny Sullivan, who has been tracking the discrepancy in this year's Santa-tracking software:

"NORAD explains that it uses everything from radar to jets to track Santa. Google doesn’t explain its technology, but I suspect it tries to triangulate Santa using his cell phone signal or use of wifi hotspots.

"As for why NORAD shows Father Christmas delivering three times the number of gifts that Google is listing, perhaps NORAD’s radars can better pinpoint presents while Google might be doing estimating. Meanwhile  both services sometimes show presents being delivered over oceans! And why is NORAD showing Santa arriving in some places at 9pm rather than midnight, as has been the case in the past?"

Maybe this is just the sort of thing that happens when you switch software: NORAD (also known as the North American Aerospace Defense Command) has been monitoring Santa's flight as a public service since 1955, and five years ago, it teamed up with Google to keep up with the crush of Web traffic. This year, however, the NORAD Santa operation parted ways with Google and partnered with Microsoft instead.

Google stayed in the Santa game by setting up its own tracking system for "Santa's Dashboard" and Google Maps – a system that doesn't make use of NORAD's tracking data.

Today, Canadian Maj. Gen. Andre Viens, a spokesman for NORAD, declined to intervene in the Santa-tracking war.

"It's not affecting our tracking," Viens told MSNBC. "We're not in competition with anyone. Our role, and we've been doing that for more than 50 years, is to track Santa and make sure that he has a safe and secure journey throughout the world, and throughout North America in particular."

TODAY: Follow Santa's Christmas Eve flight

PhotoBlog: Inside NORAD's command center

Maybe it shouldn't be surprising to find that it's so difficult to get a firm fix on Santa's position, considering how many presents he has to deliver in so little time. Some experts have speculated that the only way Santa could  deliver gifts (or lumps of coal) to billions of homes in the course of just a few hours would be if he somehow harnessed quantum teleportation. And once you accept that, it's not that big of a leap to detect Santa in two places at once.

Alan Boyle is the science editor for NBC News Digital, and has been tracking NORAD's Santa tracker since 1998. Boyle's usual online hangout is over at Cosmic Log.

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