Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Will Microsoft Own the Web (Again) ?


Contentious title, I know, but that’s just to get you here. If you’re reading this, it worked.

With the recent news about Windows 8 from Microsoft, like many, I’ve been pondering their future. Since I work for a software development company heavily invested in Microsoft tools and technologies, my future is tied to theirs so this makes sense. It’s hard to know what Microsoft’s strategy is, or if they have one at all. Sometimes it looks like they’re doing new cool things (WP7), although uptake by the market doesn’t always follow. Other times it looks like the right hand isn’t talking to the left, or the whole company is in panic mode. Much has been written about how Microsoft is behind it’s competitors, or no longer relevant, how Ballmer is (allegedly) driving it under and so on. There have also been the debacles over the question of the future Silverlight and the use of the admittedly idiotic term “Native HTML” all of which have caused laughter from some sections of the industry. All this may or may not be true at present, but I’m wondering if there isn’t a secret plan that’s being missed by most. I wonder if perhaps those laughing should stop and think about this a little bit longer.

Microsoft could be said to have owned the web at one stage, Netscape/Mozilla created the first browser but Microsoft came out with IE and basically crushed them. Let’s not forget that Microsoft is generally pretty good at playing catch-up even when it’s later to the game, it is good and experienced at being the underdog. We can argue about which product was actually better, or whether the business practices employed by Microsoft were fair and so on, but in the end they had far more of the browser market than any other. Of course, while IE is still widely used today, other browsers are growing faster and have stolen a significant portion of that market share.

Combine that with the up take in portable devices, mostly Smartphones and tablets like the iPhone, iPad, and Android phones and tablets, and Microsoft seems to be fighting a losing battle. Are Windows 8 and IE 9 part of a plan to turn that around ? That might sound ridiculous, obviously Microsoft are going to release new products, obviously they’re supposed to be better than what came before, and obviously Microsoft hopes those products will save them. What I’m asking is are Windows 8 and IE 9 the first steps in a plan to create the web client platform of choice ?

Hardware acceleration in the browser (IE9), a (supposedly, depending on your personal taste) cool and striking new UI for Windows based on the already much lauded WP7 interface, and an OS designed to run across a variety of platforms and form factors ? HTML5 and JScript as the development tools of choice for Windows 8? What if “Native HTML" is supposed to mean “Native and HTML” or something similar ? Taking HTML5 and JScript seriously opens up a lot of applications to running on Windows 8 and being sold through the new Windows 8 app store that wouldn’t have been if it was native only. If Windows 8 actually provided additional capabilities for web applications, things that couldn’t be done on other platforms, then web developers (at least some of them) would get excited about that. All of a sudden we have a class of (good/excellent) web applications that either only work, or work best on Windows. What if the plan is to produce the killer client OS for using the web ?

You may be terrified by this concept, after all, many see the web as a place free of dominance by a single client platform and want it to remain that way. Or you might just hate the idea of Microsoft being the winner here. You may scoff. Who knows if Microsoft can actually pull this off (no doubt many would argue they can’t)… but what if Microsoft turned Windows into the iOS of the web ? What if you could get web and internet experiences like no other, but only on the Windows platform  and that platform ran on your smartphone, your tablet, your laptop, your TV ?

What if having the fastest or best standards support or whatever in a browser doesn’t matter because the web is no longer separate to your OS, constrained inside the browser ? Is this Microsoft’s answer to ChromeOS, albeit with a different view… instead of the browser being the operating system shell, the OS is a bigger, better browser ? What if the point here is not to kill non-web applications or move away from them, but to actually enable web based applications to compete with non-web applications on performance, beauty, offline support and general user experience ? What if Microsoft made Windows the coolest platform for consuming the web and internet (on any device) as Apple made the iPhone coolest smartphone ?

Ok, so Microsoft have been building the internet and the web into Windows in various ways for a while, this isn’t exactly a new concept. Security is also a problem that gets bigger the more you integrate the internet and web to the OS. Microsoft may or may not pull it off, and if they do it’s likely to be Windows 10 before we see the full fruits of this (possible) plan (if any). Just for a moment though, throw out any bias you might have and consider what the world would be like if Microsoft managed this feat. What would the world be like if no one wanted to access the web unless they were using Windows ? What if Microsoft owned the web again ?

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