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Ballmer Acknowledges Mistakes, Offers Insights on Roadmap at MIX08

In a rare display of contrition, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer yesterday acknowledged frustration with the acceptance of Windows Vista and the company's failure to upgrade its Internet Explorer browser more routinely, as well the questionable decision to pursue separate development paths for Internet Explorer and the .NET Framework.

Speaking at his MIX08 keynote address in Las Vegas, Ballmer acknowledged that tying IE to the operating system may have stifled innovation, given it was well over five years between the releases of IE 6 and IE 7, both of which were tied to the releases of Windows XP (released in 2001) and Vista (released last year).

"That was a painfully long gap between releases of browser innovation," Ballmer said. "You won't see those kind of gaps on Windows. I think we now understand how we get things enough decoupled to incubate new innovations in the browser separate from the operating system and then roll them back into the operating system."

Those remarks were particularly noteworthy given that Microsoft officials took the hard line that IE and Windows could not be decoupled in defending the U.S. government's antitrust case against the company in the late 1990s.

As for the failure to align IE and .NET development, Ballmer indicated that they should be more tightly integrated in the future. "We got a whole lot of our innovation all coordinated and tied to the release of the next operating system after Windows XP. The browser was one of those technologies, .NET was not," he said.

As a result, .NET had a separate path. "Obviously, we could ship browsers separate from the operating system, but we were really thinking through that next generation design," Ballmer said. "There was a whole bunch of things that we have learned from what we did during that design process. It's important to integrate things, but it's probably important to incubate new technologies before you integrate them together because we had the long gap."

Ballmer also acknowledged customer frustration with Vista and some of the performance and compatibility issues that have plagued Microsoft's latest operating system. "We did make the choice to kind of hurt compatibility and our customers have let us know that that has been very painful," Ballmer noted. "We made a very concrete set of choices in order to enhance the security. Vista is a very secure system."

He added that with the release of the Vista service pack earlier this week, many of the compatibility issues had been addressed.

Yahoo on Microsoft's Mind
Ballmer's keynote was full of ironies as he addressed a broad array of issues, including Microsoft's proposed $44.6 billion acquisition of Yahoo, the new Silverlight 2.0 rich Internet application runtime and Redmond's just-announced "interoperability pledge."

Perhaps most ironic was the format: He was interviewed by Guy Kawasaki, the former Apple fellow and evangelist for the Macintosh platform.

"Whoever thought that I would ever be at a Microsoft event?" said Kawasaki, now a managing director with Garage Technology Ventures, a provider of capital to startups. "Not me," Ballmer replied.

When asked about Microsoft's interest in Yahoo, Ballmer insisted that Redmond needs the scale to take on archrival Google.

Of particular interest: what the successful acquisition of Yahoo would mean to the underlying PHP code that powers much of Yahoo's sites. Would the PHP be converted to .NET or would Microsoft embrace PHP? Ballmer said such integration issues would be premature to consider, but he hinted that PHP might have a role in the combined enterprise.

"I think there will be a lot of innovation in the core infrastructure beyond what we have in Windows today, and ASP.NET, beyond what you see in Linux and PHP today," Ballmer observed. "Over time, probably most of the big applications on the Internet will wind up being rebuilt and redone, whether those are ours or Yahoo's or any of the other competitors, but for the foreseeable future, we will be a PHP shop I guess if we own Yahoo, as well as being an ASP.NET shop."

When asked how quickly Silverlight will be ported to Microsoft's existing services such as Live Messenger and Hotmail, Ballmer said the company will be rolling it out onto various applications in the coming months. He stopped short of saying it would be released to older iterations of Microsoft's software and services.

"The truth of the matter is, we have all of the same installed base issues that everybody else does and it's only on a new release of one of the products that it makes sense to really go back and change the delivery platform," he explained. "Some of our applications get delivered today on rich Windows applications like Live Messenger [and there's] no real reason to move that to Silverlight. Some of the experiences you will see over time, all the relevant ones will move to Silverlight."

Pointed Questions
Here are Ballmer's responses to some questions posed by Kawasaki and keynote attendees:

Given Microsoft's interoperability pledge, why has it ended development of IE on the Macintosh?
"At this stage of the game, we feel like it's smarter for us to apply our innovation energy to doing new things as opposed to bringing yet another browser to the Mac."

On the increased market share of Firefox:
"Firefox has certainly built presence and position over the course of the last couple of years. You see us now investing as heavily as we ever had in the browser. We certainly feel like browser innovation is core for that, and the ultimate measure is how well we do versus Firefox and Safari and the other browsers."

Will Microsoft license Silverlight to Apple for the iPhone?
"Silverlight for iPhone is, of course, interesting. We want to get Silverlight everywhere. Now, I can't say there's been some extensive discussion with Guy's old boss [Apple CEO Steve Jobs] on this topic, and I notice they just announced a new runtime and it sure seems they're trying to charge a whole lot more money for it than anybody else on the face of the planet. I think they want 30 percent of every bit of revenue that you collect on their runtime. It's a good business if you can make it. I'm not sure a lot of the software developers that I know are going to be very interested in that, but it may mean that Apple is not welcoming open, royalty-free runtimes on its platform."

On social networking in the enterprise:
"We're certainly doing a lot of work around SharePoint, our collaboration product, and Active Directory. It turns out we know already a lot about people and how they relate to each other inside the enterprise. The ability to sort of let that infrastructure find -- help you find colleagues, colleagues with shared interests, much [like] the way social networking sites help you find friends, people with similar interests on the broad Internet -- that's a big area of investment for us. We've done a little bit in the version of SharePoint that's in the market today, and you'll see more of that in future release of Office and SharePoint. I'd say early stage today still."

Plans for Windows Mobile via its acquisition of Danger Inc.:
"Windows Mobile today is a horizontal operating system. On top of that, we see an opportunity to build unique applications with service components. Danger really is part of a strategy to do consumer-oriented applications and services on top of Windows Mobile, just like some of the things that we've done with our enterprise software."

About the Author

Jeffrey Schwartz is editor of Redmond magazine and also covers cloud computing for Virtualization Review's Cloud Report. In addition, he writes the Channeling the Cloud column for Redmond Channel Partner. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreySchwartz.

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