Monday, 22 November 2010

Musings and Microsofts

You know, some of my recent blog posts (here, here, and here, for example) probably make me look like a rabid Microsoft-hater.

But I'm not. Not any more.

Sure, I don't like their business methods, and never have. Their software products in general are heavily bloated and inexplicably resource-hungry. (MS SQL Server 2005 Express needs over 1.3GB of disk space! How can a SQL server possibly need that much disk space?) They produce a very small amount of genuinely innovative technology (Kinect), and a lot of mediocrity. They are constantly trying to shoot down Open Source, a battle they know they can never win.

There's a lot to like, or at least admire, about Microsoft
However - there's a lot to like, or at least admire, about MSFT. They have some very smart people indeed. I've worked alongside or for a number of them, in my career, and I can't think of one who didn't deserve respect. (Declaration of interest: MS tried to head-hunt me once. I took a rain check.) Microsoft are superbly good at owning and controlling a market - try to buy a PC without Windows from a major retailer, and you'll see what I mean. Their marketing is sometimes hilariously inept ("I'm a PC!" - what, you're beige inside and out? "Windows 7 - my idea!" Yeah? I bet you drive your Ferrari 430 everywhere in first gear), but it clearly works sufficiently well. Some of Microsoft's products are rather good: their keyboards and mice are largely bland, but solidly built and just keep working; their Visual Studio development environment is recognised as probably the best in the industry.

The thing is, we - all of us - need Microsoft. We need their products to set a certain performance and behaviour standard, so that its competition knows how far they have to extend to better them and distract the public eye. The haters need a bugbear they can fulminate against. The City folk need a bellwether for the health of the technology industries.

However much MSFT huffs and puffs, Open Source isn't going to blow down.
I used to hate Microsoft too, for stifling technological progress and competition, but I think their Big Bad Wolf has come up against the brick house at last, and it's called Open Source. However much MSFT huffs and puffs, that house isn't going to blow down. If it wants inside, Microsoft is going to have to put the teeth away, ask nicely, and try not to eat the occupants.

It used to be the case that big corporate and Governmental buyers would call in the Microsoft guy with the clipboard and the tick list, much as their predecessors did with IBM and their mainframe products. The adage always was, "You can't get sacked for buying [IBM, Microsoft]." But things have changed. After a ropey start, Open Source is now considered commercial-grade, enough to get the attention of the big buyers. For some time, we watched MS offer Government purchasers ludicrously low prices for Windows and MS Office licensing. You don't often see those stories now, and it's not clear why. I suspect it's because the buyers' attitudes have changed. Where once they would raise the spectre of Open Source, to force Microsoft to discount their pricing below cost, now they're just not interested in paying for MS products any more, so there's no point having the conversation.

I don't want Microsoft to fail: I want them to change their approach.
I don't want Microsoft to fail: I want them to change their approach. I can't see Windows or Office going Open Source, however much I might wish it, but I can envisage a Microsoft that is driven by its market, rather than vice-versa; a Microsoft that engages with open standards without a killer agenda; a Microsoft that collaborates, not competes. It sounds like a hippy agenda, but it's not. IBM switched to that model, and saved itself from destruction. Sun Microsystems tried, but it was too late, and didn't fit well with a business model dependent upon declining chip and system sales. I don't think MSFT can make that change with Steve Ballmer at the helm (although I hear he's handy at rearranging furniture), but I have my doubts that Ballmer will hold his tenure for much longer. Windows 7 has gone some way to recovering from the train wreck of Vista, but Open Source is hurting Microsoft, and the hurt's only going to get worse. Ballmer's combative style is looking more and more outdated in the face of the modern market.

Another thing I never thought I'd say: good luck, Microsoft.

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