Thursday, March 27, 2008

The Greed Consumes

It's a plain and simple fact that Microsoft is here to stay. No matter what the Linux-Heads and MAC-Daddies of the world say, Good Ol' Bill has secured his company's presence in our marketplace for a long time to come. Whether through better innovation, clever marketing, or sheer dollar-power, Microsoft has stood its ground against all comers so far.

Something tells me that's about to change...

It's no secret that Microsoft has been eyeing a piece of the Web 2.0 pie currently dominated by Google, the Little-Search-Engine-That-Could. And why not? The "Do No Evil" start up has not only made a name for itself with quicker, more relevant search results, but they are rapidly becoming an integrated part of life for anyone who spends any amount of time online. Be it blogging with Blogger, sharing photos with Picasa, surfing videos on Google Video and YouTube, or emailing friends and family gargantuan attachments with Gmail, we're all skinny-dipping in the Google-Pond or, at the very least, dipping our feet in to test the waters. Why wouldn't Microsoft want to join in the fun?

Traditionally, Mr. Gates' response to the Google-Pond (if I'm allowed to extend the analogy just a bit too far), would be to build an overly complicated and outrageously expensive Sports-Plex, complete with wavepool and waterslides. Of course, there would be no less than 12 checkpoints to pass on the way in (just to make sure you're authorized to be there and really want to use the hot tub), the pools would spontaneously drain at random times for no reason whatsoever, and lifeguards would only be added to the staff after a sufficient number of drownings proved their necessity.

And there you'd have it: The Leisure Center del Vista.

But, not unlike getting a Blue Screen of Death right after applying the latest Windows Updates, Microsoft doesn't always do things the way we expect them to. Such is the case with the news yesterday that the software giant is planning to go head-to-head with Google in the free apps arena with a project code-named "Albany". You can read the PCWorld article here: http://www.pcworld.com/article/id,143873/article.html

Aside from the fact that I feel Microsoft is like a teenage girl who has taken too long to decide on a dress for the Prom and is now rushing off, late to the dance, with her garters unfastened, hoping to snag some poor desperate boy before the night is over, I see a couple of problems with this approach.

For starters, Microsoft has a penchant for re-inventing the wheel. Granted, they've come up with some pretty astounding advances in home and business computing because of this habit, but it's no way to play catch-up. Google's headstart can be credited as much to their acquisition of smaller start-ups who have already put in the hours and hours of R&D, beta testing, and quality assurance for their Web 2.0 services as it can to their foresight and vision. If Microsoft wants to have any chance of narrowing the gap, they can't waste time by sending their team back to the drawing board. Perhaps I am as mistaken about this as I would have been about the wavepool analogy... so we'll have to wait and see.

Another stumbling block that I'm sure Microsoft is bound to stub its multi-billion dollar toe on is its reputation... good or bad.

On the one hand, there are going to be users out there who will adamantly avoid these services, free or not, based purely on the Microsoft brand and the flying Window logo. Is this fair? No. Is it rational? Certainly not. Is it inevitable. Yup. Brand-power is a double-edged sword and it's next to impossible to win back people you have disappointed in the past. It's going to take more than a flamboyant stage appearance by Steve Ballmer and clever use of a Golden Oldie by The Stones, Tom Cochrane, or Van Halen to sway the nay-sayers this time around.

On the other hand, you're going to have die-hard fans of Microsoft's apps who just can't wait to take the Web 2.0 plunge. I'm thinking specifically of Microsoft Office users. Let's face it, when it comes to productivity software, Office is the be all and end all... so far. Sure, there are plenty of less-expensive alternatives out there (OpenOffice, Google Docs, et al) but, for the serious user, nothing beats the raw power that Microsoft has put into its industry-leading products. But will this same power make the cut when Microsoft trims the fat for the online environment? Sadly, I don't think it will. We've already seen the inferiority of Mobile Office in comparison to it's desktop predecessor, why should we believe a web-based version will be any better? Heck, it will likely be worse!

In the end, Microsoft is obviously committed now and my mere arguments aren't enough to even give a programming supervisor holed up in a basement lab somewhere on the Redmond compound pause, let alone stop the wheels of the massive machine from rolling forward. It won't be long before "Albany" gets released under a name-way-less-cool-name-than-its-codename and we'll see the results of Microsoft's efforts.

Just Google it.
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