Microsoft and big bets

Microsoft is playing a colossal game of chicken with the European Commission. Nail biting aside, at least they are finally communicating the right message: that Windows is an application development platform that requires regular technology updates, even those that compete directly with products formerly made by third parties.

Windows Vista is supposed to be one of Microsoft's "big bets" in the poker game that is the modern software economy. That's a big bet, to be sure, and Microsoft will have to deliver on it in order to secure its software future (hint: I'm running Vista at home these days, and they will). However, just as big a bet is Microsoft's battle with antitrust authorities, and right now, Microsoft has stacks of chips on a table in Brussels as it attempts to overturn a European Commission decision which ruled that Microsoft needed to pull things out of Windows and document more of it's server APIs in order to help other companies to compete with them.

Now, I'm not a gambling man. My last (and only) trip to Vegas saw me lose $90 within the first hour of my presence there (my friend, apparently, had decided it's fun to play at the $10 blackjack table, and being social, I joined him), followed quickly by my decision that I didn't want to gamble anymore. I'm probably the only guy who will spend more money on video games in some forgotten corner of a huge casino hall than at the tables.

I, however, don't have a few billion burning a hole in my pocket, and I am not faced with a government trying to tell me how to design my products (well, maybe indirectly, as I do work for Microsoft).

If Microsoft wins, the Commission's case will be terminally undermined, and Microsoft would be free to update Windows however it wants, including by adding entirely new products to Windows, or as was the case with Media Player, improving existing products to such an extent that they compete directly with third party products. If Microsoft loses, however, not only is Microsoft likely to get the book thrown at it by a highly-annoyed European Commission for past "offenses," the Commission will be motivated to micromanage Microsoft's future development plans for years to come, possibly even by trying to throw a monkey wrench into the Vista release.

That's a bit like installing a new power booster into your Formula 1 racer that will either make you win the race or smash you face-first into a wall. Frankly, under a worst-case scenario, I think Microsoft would have no choice but to release Vista for the rest of the world first, delaying the European release until they can figure out how to satisfy the bureaucrats in Brussels.

Nail-biting aspects aside, I'm happy that Microsoft finally seems to be communicating the correct message. From yesterday's article covering the proceedings:

"Microsoft insists very strongly in this case that its operating system is...a product with media functionality that evolves and improves and expands with the evolution of technology," Judge John Cooke said. "Am I correct...that you would say this is a single system?"

A Microsoft official replied: "You are correct."

That's exactly what I have been saying for years. You need to communicate the notion that Windows is an application development platform competing in a market with other application development platforms, and as such, has a requirement to update features as the technology becomes available. Microsoft shouldn't be able to do something so obvious as blocking the installation of a non-Microsoft web browser, as an example, but they certainly should be allowed to include a browser, particularly given that using a desktop computer without a browser is, these days, like driving a car without a steering wheel.

Did Microsoft hope that their product did better in the marketplace than any other? Most assuredly. Heck, when I release a product, I hope people will use the stuff I write. Why? Because it's the best damn software in existence...and I wrote it, so I'm biased.

As for interoperability protocols, I'm open to the notion that Microsoft should make it easy for third parties to interoperate. I'm not going to say too much on that point...yet. The debate over that part of the Commission's ruling is slated for Wednesday and Thursday, so stay tuned.

On another note, I started filming that movie this past weekend, and I didn't kill anyone yet. That's good, because filming a movie is a stressful experience where everyone works closely together and small character differences can seem like glaring flaws. It also means that I work from Monday morning to Sunday evening for the next two months. So, if you see me on a street corner somewhere clutching a copy of "The Communist Manifesto" and advocating global revolution, do understand that I am just tired.

On a nicer note, I'm likely to have a new photo for my blog, as the director and DP (who are sisters) INSIST that I replace it with a headshot by our casting director. So, you other ZDNet bloggers better look sharp, as I'm going to have the sexiest darn blog photo the world has ever seen.