Sunday, May 07, 2006

Just how (anti)-trustworthy is Microsoft?

The debate over the extent of the Big-M’s anti-competitive practices is almost as old as the software industry itself. So it seems like a little late in the day to join the debate. Most people who have anything to say on the issue take the overly sensationalist position (I think) that Microsoft is this evil colossus out to grind its rivals to dust (while we are on the topic, isn’t that what business is all about?). Well, I have a (slightly) different opinion on the topic (I think).

It’s no big secret that Microsoft’s priorities today lie squarely in the media space. Look at who their rivals are today. Google, Apple and Sony. In each case, Microsoft is trying to compete with what it (and the rest of the world) sees as a fast growing and lucrative segment (search, digital music (only a matter of time) and gaming). Heck, the fact that they’ve integrated an RSS reader into the Vista desktop means that they think this whole Web 2.0 thing is worth their attention.

In all of these segments, Microsoft spares no effort in its quest to (eventually) become the dominant player. MSN prides itself on calling itself Project Underdog. IE7 defaults to MSN search. Xbox boss J Allard is known to have a Sony Playstation in his office with a bullet hole through it.

You don’t have to be Larry Sonsini to figure out that having IE7 default to MSN search is anti-competitive. All Microsoft has to say about the issue is its time-tested cliché -- “the user is still in control.” While that may be true technically speaking, let us for 1 minute consider the median IE user – my dad (I’ve managed to convert my mom to Firefox). Would he consider worth his effort to change the search default? Not really. For that matter no median user would -- in a search world where PageRank is no longer king. As far as Microsoft is concerned Google can go ahead and sue them (which is going to be the most likely outcome – the way things are headed) and they could not care less.

All of this well documented. So whats the point of this post, then? The point is, Microsoft does not care about companies which work on products that fall outside what it considers to be critical to its very existence. This is something I thought of while sitting through a presentation on the Windows Filtering Platform (WFP). You can think of the WFP as a sexed up raw socket API that does things like keep per flow state and in general, allows applications access to network traffic at the header level. It is being touted by Microsoft as a brand new Vista feature. It seems to me that by architecting (and promoting) this thing, Microsoft is in fact aiding and abetting vendors who might be competing with its homegrown solutions (Windows Defender and OneCare). Take Zonelabs for example. That company makes a personal firewall that will likely benefit from WFP (when they port their solution to Vista). Does Microsoft care? Not really. Why? Because personal firewalls do not constitute a critical growth segment for the company. That’s all there is to it. Microsoft is a behemoth that likes to take on other behemoths (or in the case of Netscape, a company that threatens to morph into one). The fact that Google has a name that’s all hip doesn’t change the fact that they’re yet another corporation.

This pattern of behavior is all too well documented. Larry Ellison often gloats about how Oracle became the world’s most successful database vendor while Microsoft was busy fighting the browser wars. I wonder who’s going to sneak under the radar this time.


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