Foley on Microsoft

Microsoft's Internal Tug-of-War: The Open Platform vs. Closed Camps, Who Will Win Out?

Mary Jo Foley looks at Microsoft's back-and-forth decisions on whether its software and other offerings should be locked in to the Windows ecosphere or be available to everyone.

There's a tug-of-war happening inside Microsoft. On one side, we have the 'Softies who believe that making Microsoft products and services available on as many platforms as possible is the way to win. On the other, we have those who believe that software and services are the company's greatest assets and should be treated as incentives for Microsoft-centric users.

I'm not sure which side -- if either -- will triumph. With a dollars-and-cents guy like Steve Ballmer at the helm, ideology will likely be less important than revenue stream. If making ZunePass subscriptions available to Android and iPhone users can be shown to be more lucrative for Microsoft than keeping ZunePass a Microsoft-users-only service, I'd bet multiplatform ZunePass will become priority No. 1.

This is hardly the first time that the "open versus closed" debate has raged at Microsoft. Ever since the mid-1990s -- when Bill Gates backed the idea that Microsoft should build around the Windows ecosystem first and around the Web "someday" -- warring factions have faced off inside the company.

Since Ray Ozzie stepped into Gates' chief software architect shoes in 2006, there have been a number of visible victories for the "open" team. Microsoft ended up supporting Safari and Firefox with its Office Web Apps. The company let developers use PHP, Eclipse and other non-Microsoft dev technologies with Windows Azure. And the Bing team has been developing versions of the Bing app for all kinds of smartphones.

Supposedly, the Office team is working on some kind of Office port and/or Office Web Apps offering for the iPad, but this project still has no officially announced plans or due dates. And Microsoft is actively entertaining the idea of making its Zune software client -- which would be a head-to-head competitor with iTunes -- available on the Mac, I hear.

However, all that said, this holiday season the "closed" camp is the one that looks stronger at Microsoft.

Company officials are touting the availability of Xbox games and services as possibly the biggest selling point for its Windows Phone 7 devices. Zune music and video content is being integrated with Windows Phone 7, and the Zune software client is one of the primary vehicles by which Microsoft will be updating those phones.

On the PC side of the house, the big Redmond holiday push will be focused around Windows Live and its set of services designed to flesh out Windows. Windows Live Essentials, the core set of these services, is a pure Windows-only play. Even though these services are, in part, Web services, they're not designed for use with anything but Windows PCs.

There's nothing wrong, or even unique, about Microsoft wanting to reward loyal customers who buy a lot of its products with a better, more seamlessly integrated experience. Apple does the same, as I've come to appreciate as the owner of an iPad who's found iTunes on Windows and a lack of Zune integration to be a less-than-optimal combination. If you're willing to go all-Microsoft, you get a superior experience. That's true on both the consumer and the enterprise fronts.

There is a difference, though. While there are still a number of businesses that could be considered "Microsoft shops," there seem to be almost no households that are free of iPads, PS3s, Droids and other non-Microsoft-centric goods. My point: Multiplatform support and integration of other platforms in homes isn't just an option -- it should be a requirement.

Which side do you see winning the tug-of-war? Will Microsoft go totally multiplatform or will the old-school crowd win out and keep Redmond's "crown jewels" for its loyal Microsoft-centric users?

About the Author

Mary Jo Foley is editor of the ZDNet "All About Microsoft" blog and has been covering Microsoft for about two decades. She has a new book out, Microsoft 2.0 (John Wiley & Sons, May 2008), about what's next for Microsoft in the post-Gates era.

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Reader Comments:

Fri, Nov 26, 2010 P. Dougla

I think it is fine if MS distributes technology on the web and other platforms. But these technologies should be gravity wells, pulling people into MS platforms and paid proprietary technologies. MS shouldn't really be trying to make money from these free technologies themselves on other platforms, since history has shown (from the company's online business) that this is hard, if not impossible to do. Therefore, MS proprietary platforms should continue to be the company's profit centers, and the whole notion of using the web and other platforms as new profit centers should be largely dismissed - as doing so could undermine MS' platform cash cows (e.g. Windows, Office, Windows Server). I believe it is largely okay for MS to make money from Bing on the web and Office on the Mac, because doing so does not threaten Windows, and it helps keep regulators off MS' back. But even Bing could be morphed into a giant gravity well, sucking people into Windows, by having the slickest, best information search user experience that spans premium data accessed by Windows applications, data local to Windows PCs, as well as data found on the web.

I think it was frightening when MS showed signs of wanting to treat all platforms equally. That would have been fine, if MS itself didn't have platforms which contribute overwhelmingly to the company's bottom line. Also MS started to embrace the vision of its competitors (e.g. Google) to the detriment of its own businesses. As far as I’m concerned, if your competitors are doing things to disrupt your business, don't stand there wringing your hands and say you have to join them or die; fight back by disrupting back what they are doing. That is exactly what Apple did when in breathed new life into local applications running on proprietary operating systems. MS can largely fend off competitors, by incorporating the advantages of their technologies into its own. E.g. I believe MS in business, should neutralize web applications' advantage of having anywhere access, by using virtualization to give Windows applications the same advantage.

I think it is great to see MS no longer playing defense with the web, as many of the new technologies it has released (e.g. Windows Phone 7 and Xbox 360 and Kinect) have been centered around its own platforms, and not the browser. There are those who say MS must be prepared for its platforms to be supplanted by the browser, that the PC era is just about over. That is rubbish! As Apple has demonstrated with its highly proprietary iOS, the best way to make money in this Internet era is not on top of the browser, but rather on top of closed proprietary operating systems, in which Apple's revenue and income have skyrocketed, and now easily dwarfed Google's.

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