Microsoft awakens

I'm not sure yet what my opinion will be on Windows 8. I've been disinterested in iOS and Android for a while now so a third option that has a real chance at success piques my interest.

What I am particularly eager to observe is Microsoft's evolution to fit in among the modern software and services market. You probably think I'm talking about how they will match Apple and Google technically. No, I don't doubt that they have a qualified staff of developers.

I am speaking of Microsoft adjusting to the reality we live in today, where government regulators will have no credibility interfering with Microsoft's business practices (which were admittedly questionable in the past) in light of how tremendously hypocritical that would be.

I conjecture that since the late 1990s, Microsoft has been attempting to maximize its profits (naturally) but do so within a framework of avoiding special attention from the governments of the world, most notably the US government and European Union.

But I think they are waking up to realize that fear of government suppression is unnecessary and outdated. Evidence shows governments have done nothing to suppress equally market-manipulating force—which some such as myself would argue is even more dramatic—by Apple and Google.

The tight, strict, and capricious rule by Apple over its ecosystem makes the flack over Microsoft's bundling of Internet Explorer with Windows seem a silly and quaint episode. It makes the flack over Microsoft discounting the cost of Windows when bundled with PCs seem ridiculous. Can you get an iPhone without iOS? Can you get a Droid 4 without Android? Can you get a Mac without MacOS? Can you get a Chromebook without Chrome? No? Well, you can get a PC without Windows. So Microsoft tries to make it more likely that you'll simply opt to have Windows included by subsidizing the hardware or playing other tricks. Alert the authorities!

Verizon and AT&T discount hardware if you sign up for a two-year service plan. This sort of give-and-take deal making is so ordinary today that I again say it's quaint that anyone would still, in 2012, single out Microsoft for special vitriol.

Up until Cmdrtaco left Slashdot (very recently), they still used a Borg Gates icon for Microsoft. Funny, yes, and deserved. But meanwhile, Apple and Google were represented by their unmolested logos. (Since then, Microsoft's real logo has re-appeared on Slashdot.)

Let me be clear to say that I don't think it's the government's responsibility to crack down on these sorts of activities. Quite the opposite: I think it's the consumers' responsibility to be mindful of what they consume and who provides it. This is why when I learned the LCD manufacturers were in a cartel to fix prices, I plead with the other hardware manufacturers: rescue the consumer, please! Disrupt the cartel and reap your due fortunes. (Word is that some new Korean manufacturers are doing precisely that, though it seems to be taking some time.)

It is precisely because I feel that Microsoft got an especially unfair shake in the past that I look forward to what they will do when they completely realize how free they are. CNet reported this morning that Windows 8 will have a built-in SkyDrive application. What is SkyDrive? It's some sort of cloud storage thing. Really nothing special (and frankly, not something I especially care about, see my earlier rants about the "cloud"). But once it's in Windows 8, it's possible that we'll all know about it because it could become a de facto standard among such services.

If you were to juxtapose this news alongside the anti-competitive furor that erupted over Internet Explorer, I think you would see how bundling SkyDrive with Windows 8 is important not because of SkyDrive. It's Microsoft coming around to the idea that they don't have to play by special rules that don't and never did apply to their competitors. Google would never think twice about bundling such a service with Android or Chromebooks. But I think up until fairly recently, Microsoft would have hesitated.

I had mixed feelings when Microsoft was punished for bundling Internet Explorer. I really hated Internet Explorer at the time, and have had misgivings about it ever since as well. I fiercely supported Netscape 4, Netscape 6, and then Mozilla back when those were clearly inferior browsers. I don't kid myself. They were busted compared to Internet Explorer. Still, I played the principled Mozilla advocate.

Here's the thing, though: I did so in part because I actually felt that Microsoft had the right to do what they were doing. If you didn't like the idea of bundling Internet Explorer, you were obligated to use an alternative. If you used Internet Explorer, you were implicitly acknowledging that it was either superior at the time or that there was real convenience in it having been bundled (that is, it would have been too bothersome to take the time to download and install Mozilla). Asking the government to fix the situation is weak and ultimately harmful to society in ways you usually won't know until much later.

I'd argue the Microsoft of today is still a ruthless company that wants to maximize their profits. But I suspect they've hesitated to push initiatives and mothballed promising projects because they were worried about how the government would react. This isn't good for consumers; it's not good for innovation; and as we can plainly see, it helps large competitors that are not much different than the Microsoft you hate. Apple and Google have succeeded thanks to great technology and great marketing. But don't discount how much they have reaped by the combined active and passive suppression of Microsoft. One less viable competitor meddling with your profit machines.

And if you like Apple and Google, have the intellectual honestly to realize that their services and products would be that much better still had there been a third competitor more fiercely involved in the first decade of the 2000s. I don't know whether Windows 8 will be good or bad. But I hope it's good because I want to shake off what I see as malaise in the current hardware and platforms marketplace.
About this blog