Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Microsoft, Competition and the Right Fork

So, it turned out to be a well-timed Gillmor Gang this week for me, as I started listening to it on the same day as the PDC keynotes were webcast.

It seems that Microsoft is fast approaching a fork-in-the-road. The left fork represents the illusion of continued desktop dominance fueled by Wall Street hunger for sky-high profit margins in the Windows and Office businesses, and is very much grounded in the 20th-century Microsoft. The right fork represents the future of the company, battling for market share in a Web 2.0 world, innovating both in the rich client and web application arenas, playing fair by creating and building open standards, and doing all of this in such a way that the end user comes out the winner.

So which way will they go? Where's the new revenue model in the open world of the web when your sacrifice your existing business to get there? That's the big white elephant in the room at PDC.

Microsoft, stop charging for the tools. If Avalon, Indigo, Atlas, LINQ, Max and all the other goodies being dangled in front of developers this week are to ever gain any widespread adoption, they need to be accessible to the hobbyists out there. Give away IIS. If Apache is already free, what incentive is there to run IIS? Give away SQL Server, to at least level the playing field with MySQL. Give away Visual Studio, allow companies to develop and deploy ASP.NET and Indigo applications to their heart's content. Make it possible for the hacker in the basement (i.e., me) who's taken up Ruby on Rails to try your way of building web apps.

Jon Udell tells a good story in the Gang podcast of the difference between TerraServer and Google Maps. TerraServer has been out for years, has a public API, and yet has not inspired innovation or remixing in the way that Google Maps has. The conclusion was that Microsoft has too long focused on the developer as a professional ISV. In this scenario, the ISV is just a middleman preventing and stifling user innovation because the cycle is too lengthy. By the time developers have gotten around to building and distributing apps and getting some level of user adoption, there's no where left and no reason for the user to innovate -- it's too late. Of course, user customization and innovation is what the new 21st century web is all about.

So, Microsoft, take that leap of faith, get your stuff out there, gain adoption through cool, fun, programmer-friendly, easy-to-use tools and an open platform. Compete based on speed of innovation and the ability to retain a user base through that innovation without locking them in. Choice is what builds trust.

Take the Right Fork.

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