I've been doing some catching up in the blogosphere, which means catching up on Robert Scoble's link blog and trying to unwind myself from NetNewsWire's 163,000 unread items. It's completely unfair to subject beta software to that level of abuse, but since all software is beta these days, so be it.
Now, Robert's link blog is a study in the way his mind works. First, it's all about Robert, which is why I read it in the first place. Anyone who wants to get Robert's attention merely puts his name in a post, preferably in the first graf where the abstract will pick it up on description-only RSS feeds. Next, you have to talk about something Robert's interested in, so podcasting, RSS, Tablet PC, OneNote, BloggerCon, IE, Bosworth, Gmail, Firefox, iPod, Sun, and... well, that's enough for starters.
OK, now that I've gotten Robert's attention, I'll get to the point: Microsoft has lost its dominant ownership of the conversation. This happened some time ago, well before Robert showed up on the Redmond campus. If anything, he's restored the company to some semblance of its former visibility. And his association with some of the finest minds in the business, as well as a healthy friendship with Dave Winer, have molded him into someone worthy of the visibility and clout he's acquired. This is not a back-handed compliment, just an observation of how people grow into a role when they work hard and listen.
Today the conversation is about trust. Not the anti-trust kind of trust, the trust of your environment, your friends, your understanding of what's important to you and the people you care about. High, if not first, on that list is time. How do I maximize it, how do I clear the way to do the right, smart thing that will help move the ball forward--whatever that may be? Making choices--what's important, what's efficient, what's fun, what's the trade-off--a thousand decisions every minute of the day, and sometimes, refactored and reworked at night while dreaming.
Simply put, I lost trust in Windows. But more importantly, I gained trust in the network. It's not so much that Windows suddenly got bad--it didn't. Spend a month or three as I did with the Tablet and you'll find yourself thrilled with the possibilities, the orchestration of a thousand services into something truly unique. But in that victory are the seeds of defeat--at least for now. Because the Tablet is an island, a silo, a place you can vacation at--as long as you get your shots.
You know the drill--the spyware, the Trojan horses, the corporate firedrill that is announced not by IT but by a stream of emails from co-workers you haven't heard from since the last exploit. It's been years since I lived in the Northeast, where you learn that tentative way of walking on icy streets with a center of balance that can recover from a slip. Move to California or Charleston and you slowly unlimber and stride more openly--like Mr. Natural for the hippies among us who remember Zap Comics. That's the feeling I get from Windows now--a vague unease, a tension, a sense that I can't count on the machine to get out of the way and let me listen and relax.
Still, most of us stay tethered to Windows each day at the office. I am lucky enough to be able to use the Mac, and watch from a distance as the waves of malware crash over the PC base and leave me largely unaffected. I'm willing to put up with the occasional media stream that won't play on the Powerbook, such as the election night converage from MSNBC. The application barrier is evaporating as more and more software is delivered as a service in the browser, and the browser is becoming a commodity as Firefox and Safari approach parity and emulation of much of IE's de facto standards.
Actually, the browser is also becoming a community--whether by default or design doesn't really matter. The comfort I used to have with Windows, with Office, with the knowledge that as long as the market grew, the price would shrink for more features--now has moved to the network, to the latest Google feature (POP3 support in Gmail), to the RESTian interface to Flash, to the blogosphere, to the earwaves of the podosphere.
And the trust has moved to the network. Sure, the lock-in is still there, but it's lock-in around ubiquity, the elasticity of the youthful brain routing around decaying business models and DRM blockages, the confidence of Doing It Yourself. You see it in Adam Curry's OPML notes for Daily Source Code, where the outliner metaphor springs to life on the Web page. Think what will happen when the barrier to writing tools falls, when Firefox (or Google or Java Desktop System piggybacking on top of a hybrid with Thunderbird) annotates enclosures with attention-extended OPML transported as RSS feeds.
Sitting in the Imax theater of the Tech Museum of Innovation for the Solaris 10 rollout, I watched Scott McNealy not talk about the futuristic SunRay sitting on the stage. Five years ago I sat in the press room laughing as a bank of SunRays blinked on and off in unison. No way, I thought, nobody is gonna tear me away from my ThinkPad. Now Scott was leaving the SunRay conversation for us to pick up, knowing full well that a zero install free OS with no viruses needs only a good synchronization standard (hello attention.xml) to enable persistent caching for mobile devices.
So complete is the Sun transformation that it fell to McNealy to answer a news conference question about blades with the elegant "software blades," a nod to Solaris 10's container technology and a bear hug for Jonathan Schwartz' virtualization of the Sun revenue model going forward. It's a marriage of the Big Freakin' Webtone Switch with software as a service and cycles on demand. In this world, podcasting is nothing more (or less) than long-form ring tones.
Windows still sits in the middle, but now, with the BlackBerry, the iPod, the Mac, Wi-Fi, and RSS, I can route around it. More and more, I miss it less and less. When it plays well on the network, I welcome it back like an old friend. But more often I see the company twisting and turning to escape from its knots, sending the IE team leader out to explain why IE can't be fixed without breaking backwards compatibility. Or muzzling OneNote author Chris Pratley's blog instead of opening the software up by turning XML on like they promised three years ago. Or rejecting standards for attention metadata that flows over the network rather than into a Roach Motel.
Is it too late for Microsoft? I don't know. I can't believe Bill and Steve can't find a way back to the center. But it may be as an entertainment company, not a technology one. Show business is still cyclical, governed as much by shelf space as anything else. Marshalling the money and connections to get a seat at the table, a movie in the theaters, a book on the shelves, still favors the DRM cartel. But more of the profit will move down the Long Tail, where point-to-point conversations between publishers and subscribers will help create a counterweight to RIAA and MPAA content.
Out on the tail, where shelf space is virtualized and attention is the vehicle for matching publishers with subscribers, podcasting and RSS are flourishing. They're selling transparency, humor, emotion, and relationship. Things of value you can put your trust in. Something for everyone, including Bill and Steve, to bet on.