Microsoft's Gary Flake: Web 2.0 has been around for decades

This description of how Microsoft fits into the 'web 2.0' world, by Dr Gary Flake (the head of Microsoft's Live Labs), is worthy of comment.

This description of how Microsoft fits into the 'web 2.0' world, by Dr Gary Flake (the head of Microsoft's Live Labs), is worthy of comment. Here's what Dr Flake said:

"People from Redmond often speak of a "platform" while in the valley they speak of an "ecosystem". Here's the surprise: both groups are talking about the same thing. To MS, Windows is a platform because it fosters a virtuous cycle in two parts: developers come to the platform because it has the most users; users come to the platform because it has the most software.

In the valley, everyone talks about Web 2.0ish things that all come down to creating something of an ecosystem where people and companies of all sizes can be both producers and consumers. In both cases, we see something of an indirect network effect, where the aggregate value -- the whole -- is greater than the sum of the parts.

Here's what's new: many folks within MS are now realizing that a lot of the stuff that's real about Web 2.0 -- not the fluffy buzzwords but the fundamental and important parts -- have actually been part of MS's core vision and mission for *decades*. Do you believe in the importance of ecosystems? Windows is the biggest one ever, that generates vastly more wealth for third parties than for MS. Do you value the long tail? MS has done more for bringing computing to the masses (both people and small businesses) than any other company. Is the democratization of tools important to you? Desktop publishing and simplified development flourish because of tools like Office and Visual Basic. What about network effects? We've created several that have reaped incalculable value to society.

Okay, now I know I am sounding like a corporate drone and I am well aware that for every example above, there are plenty of people in the valley that will bitch about my characterization. When you assume evil, then an ecosystem looks less than well-intentioned. When you assume goodness, then an ecosystem looks like benevolence. The truth is more complex and vastly more interesting.

So look at the facts: MS was pushing Web 2.0 values over a decade ago. It's the realization that this is the case that's new for MS. Our vision for where we've been, what we know how to do, and where we want to go is now much more crisp and consistent than it has ever been before. We know that helping people to be more successful -- seeking win-win dynamics -- is a major part of what we do. It's not new, but clearly connecting the dots between our past and our future is very new and, frankly, downright exciting."
(emphasis mine)

Now, forget about the whole controversy about what is or isn't web 2.0 for a bit. As Marshall McLuhan once advised: instead of asking 'is this a good thing or a bad thing?', ask instead 'what's going on?'. That's been my modus operandi in 2006 in fact :-) Anyway, call it the two-way Web, the Live Web - whatever. But as Dr Flake points out, the core parts of it have been around for years and (at a bit of a stretch) you could say Microsoft has indeed created ecosystems and network effects, etc. What's debatable about Dr Flake's characterization is whether a closed and top-down controlled ecosystem is truly "pushing Web 2.0 values". Aren't ecosystems and "democratization of tools" supposed to be about open values - as in open source and open standards? As a commenter on John Battelle's blog named 'Give me a break' put it:

"Microsoft does not support ecosystems - they support biospheres. When they want you to die, they cut off your oxygen supply."

I wouldn't put it that harshly (although Tim O'Reilly tried that line of questioning to Bill Gates at Mix 06, re his question on Netscape's air supply!), but the fact is Microsoft over the years has indeed flourished by controlling the platforms they've created and not letting the bigger animals (like Netscape) play in the ecosystem. It is encouraging that Microsoft now is starting to use 'open' tools like RSS and microformats, but it's a stretch to suggest Microsoft has always been about open ecosystems and democratic values.