As reported yesterday, Microsoft agreed to modify the way it handles options for desktop search in response to an official antitrust complaint filed by Google. This followed official statements from high-level executives that claimed these complaints had no merit.
Some commentators call it "caving." I call it an obviously sensible thing to do from a business standpoint, which would have been more obvious had the impetus for it not come from Google.
What is Microsoft's competitive advantage? From an end-user standpoint, it is the platform's ability to attract the attention of nearly every software development team in the world. Such attention yields the variety of software options that is unique to the Windows desktop.
It is that customizability and flexibility that makes Microsoft different than, say, Apple. Microsoft has a lot of things it can learn from Apple, chief among them a knack for elegant user interfaces and cleanly designed hardware. Narrowing software options, however, isn't one of those lessons.
That analysis still applies even when Microsoft decides they want to include certain features as part of the Microsoft standard base. Defaults are important. That's how companies can make the claim that a platform will always support certain types of functionality. Making sure that others can still customize the experience, however, is part and parcel of continuing an aspect of Windows that make it interesting to the vast majority of computer users and the developers who serve them.
Back in 2004, when Microsoft first made their search plans apparent to the world, a lot of pundits argued that Microsoft vs. Google would be like Microsoft vs. Netscape, triggering yet another antitrust investigation. I considered the notion to be silly, as Google is a giant in the search space and more than capable of fending off incursions from giant Microsoft.
I also, however, warned Microsoft that they should be careful to ensure that alternatives can be used in place of the Microsoft default...in other words, that the functionality should be a "pluggable" component. Create Microsoft-supplied defaults to ensure that base level functionality always exists, but don't cut off opportunities to third parties who might try to make it better.
That's not just common sense from an antitrust avoidance standpoint, but common sense from a Microsoft business standpoint.