Microsoft changing its spots?

Mike Stopforth has a different and more positive view of Microsoft to the common perception of Microsoft outside Microsoft fandom, especially in relation to Google:

Microsoft, on the other hand, has always represented that huge rich company that charged my family and then the businesses I worked for a lot of money for software. As I discovered the open source movement I grew more and more resentful and cynical toward Microsoft. It didn’t take much convincing to get me to switch to applications like Open Office and eventually Mac and OSX. However things have happened at Redmond headquarters in recent times are shifting the software giant in a very different direction. No longer is Microsoft perceived as the big scary monolithic grey monstrosity of the 90’s and early 200’s, and I daresay Google is losing it’s grip on the title of the funky ‘do no evil’ upstart.

Microsoft logo.pngIf anything, my recent and limited experiences with corporate Microsoft have entrenched many of my views of Microsoft as a whole. Let me just say that it is really unfair to paint every Microsoft employee with the same brush I would use for what I have seen. There are many good people working at Microsoft who have a genuine desire to produce good products that make people’s lives better, just as there are at Google, Apple and elsewhere. That being said, there are some very disturbing things happening at a more strategic level and I don’t agree that the factors Mike has listed in his post are indicative of any fundamental change of heart back at Redmond.

I have been involved in the Office Open XML certification battle through a local process to assess the specification and determine whether it should be certified as a document standard (Note: these are my personal views and not representative of anyone else’s views). This has been a small part of a global effort by Microsoft to persuade national standards bodies to certify OOXML as a document standard alongside Open Document Format (the format that OpenOffice and other free office software suites use). Just reading reports about Microsoft’s campaign all over the world, it is apparent that Microsoft will do what it takes to incentivise, cajole or otherwise persuade countries to support its efforts despite the fact that the specification was, at best for Microsoft, submitted prematurely for certification and, at worst, so deeply flawed it should go back to the drawing board and start over with a new certification process.

I have also heard stories about free culture activists who have been offered “help” (nudge nudge, wink wink) by Microsoft execs on the implied assumption that these activists review their positions. Heck, even if these stories are exaggerations, I have found Microsoft executives (the few I have encountered) to be largely patronising and unwilling to consider alternative positions and options.

Of course Microsoft is not alone in this. We have all seen similar attitudes at Google, Apple and a host of other companies. Microsoft is ultimately doing what it can and must to protect its interests. OOXML certification is important because it basically confirms Microsoft Office document formats’ de facto status as document standards due to market share and gives Microsoft a very easy and clear doorway to countries that insist on only supporting international standards.

Mike talks about Microsoft’s new shift to standards-based processes like IE8, its commitment to social media and its desire to improve its search technology. Wow. What a change … and all this coming years after other players in the industry made more profound moves in those directions. Firefox has been a standards based option for many years now. IE8’s adoption of W3C standards is so long overdue, it is almost a joke that support for these standards is only now a mode built into IE8 alongside support for IE6.

Microsoft’s investment in Facebook is not an investment in social media for the benefit of all humanity. It is an opportunity to take a share of the advertising revenue a site like Facebook generates. If I could place an AdSense banner of my own on Facebook I would also make a lot of noise about my profound commitment to social media and helping my common man. And when it comes to Yahoo! and the shared view that Microsoft may very well prevail in its efforts to take over Yahoo!, this is not some altruistic effort to make the Web better for Microsoft’s customers. It is an effort to combat Google and present more substantial competition for Google in the search and advertising space.

Sure we hear all the warm fuzzy stuff rather than the cold commercial rationales for these moves but then the public expression of a company’s moves in this space (whether that company be Microsoft, Google, Apple or most other similarly placed companies) is going to be warm and fuzzy because it appeals to users. Google’s Douglas Merrill recently presented at a media event for Google SA alongside Google’s country manager, Stafford Masie. I was fortunate to have an invitation to attend so I did. There has been quite a bit of commentary about the media event and not much of it was overly positive. I was also disappointed mainly because there wasn’t any indication of real change for South African users. Talk about ads being better search results and helping small business get online really translated into a statement that Google SA’s mission is to improve AdSense penetration in South Africa for the time being. This doesn’t mean I am moving my default home page to and uninstalling all the Google stuff I have on my Mac. They still make pretty good stuff. I just don’t buy the PR speak.

The point is all this warm fuzzy stuff is just that. It is helps you feel good about the company and is ultimately pretty vague and non-committal or just a load of fluff. What is really happening is a battle for a very lucrative market share and the power of social media means that these companies actually need to engage with their customers on one basis or another. This translates into bloggers being invited to media events and big, fancy conferences replete with talk about the big shift to open standards and suchlike. What we are not told is how those moves to open standards or to make our Web experience better are motivated by renewed strategies to make more money. But that is ok, that is what businesses do, they make money.

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One response to “Microsoft changing its spots?”

  1. […] companies actually need to engage with their c ustomers on one basis or another…. source: Microsoft changing its spots?, Paul’s […]

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