I've got to hand it to Microsoft, they're not asleep at the wheel in this Web 2.0 era. Today CNET reported that Microsoft plans to open access to MSN (Microsoft Network) and some of its other website properties. They will let developers build new applications on top of those sites using APIs and associated tools. Microsoft is apparently calling this its "Web platform" strategy - more details will be revealed at its Professional Developers Conference in Los Angeles next week.
This follows on from Microsoft's adoption of RSS in June this year, when they announced they will integrate RSS into Windows Vista and release a set of RSS extensions. That was the strongest signal yet from any of The Big 3 Internet companies (Google, Microsoft and Yahoo!) that they are taking RSS seriously. This announcement of a Web platform strategy is not quite as innovative, because Google and Yahoo are already well established on the Web platform. Microsoft is playing a bit of catch-up, but it does show they're quick to change with the times nowadays.
At first glance it seems like a worthy thing for Microsoft to do - let people develop new services on top of its web properties. This is a key tenet of Web 2.0 - using the Web as a platform for development (aka the Internet OS). For example Google Maps has led to interesting new apps such as Housing Maps - a mash-up between Google Maps and craigslist.
One scenario is that this is a battle for developer mindshare, a lot of which is moving over to the Web. So Microsoft has decided it needs to get some of that mindshare back from its rival Google.
But the Web platform is also part of a larger strategy by Microsoft to ensure its Windows OS doesn't slide into irrelevance for consumers. One of the key concerns for Microsoft in the coming years will be how its customers access the Web. And in this respect, the Windows OS is still the main piece of the jigsaw in Microsoft's plans for Web 2.0.
Microsoft hopes a large proportion of the population will use the Web via millions of its Internet-connected 'devices' - such as mobile phones, media centers in the home (e.g. controlled from your television set), games machines, even the good old traditional PC. These devices will run on, you guessed it, the Windows OS and they will be Microsoft's interface into Web 2.0. What's more, they will by default lead straight to MSN and other 'homepages' - driving traffic to its website properties.
Windows-powered devices for the home and office will be how Microsoft will cement its place on the Web platform. Sure they'll open up their websites with APIs and other programming toolsets. A lot of Web development and mash-ups will occur. But I suspect the Web 2.0 mindshare that Microsoft is most interested in is the consumer one - how people get to the Web platform.
Microsoft's Web platform is though at least a sign that they've moved on from trying to make Windows the dominant platform for developers to build on. Although it'll be important to keep a strong developer presence in Windows, Microsoft recognizes now that the Web is really where the developer action is and so they have to join the party.
I don't think the Web platform is Microsoft's primary strategy for its future survival, by any means. But it's an important acknowledgement that the Web is the place to be for both developers and consumers. As for how its customers access the Web, well that's at the heart of Microsoft's strategy for Web 2.0. If they can't own the platform, they want to own as many of the paths onto the platform as possible.