10 November 2005

The Redmond Behemoth "turning on a dime" again?

ZDnet is reporting a leaked email from one William Henry “Trey” Gates III:

Ten years ago this December, I wrote a memo entitled The Internet Tidal Wave which described how the internet was going to forever change the landscape of computing.

This was the last-minute change of direction (“The Road Behind”) which saw MSIE bundled with later releases of Chicago (Windows 95) and resulted in the crapflood of MS-FrontPage, HTML-enabled MS-Office products and so on which pollute the net with wonky and incompatible code today; therefore it behooves us to carefully consider the consequences of this anniversary brainwave, hopefully to find ways of thwarting the likely ensuing destandardisation efforts.

Today, the opportunity is to utilise the Internet to make software far more powerful by incorporating a services model which will simplify the work that IT departments and developers have to do while providing new capabilities.

He’s soeaking in code, as usual. Decoded, this says “we want to move the tollgate from individual PCs to our own servers”. Hands up all of those ASP providers who didn’t see Microsoft — sooner or later — personally invading their market?

News Flash! Sooner or later, Microsoft will invade every market. He goes on...

The broad and rich foundation of the internet will unleash a “services wave” of applications and experiences available instantly over the internet to millions of users.

Oh, you mean like urpmi nameofnewapplication? That was, like, so 2003. (-:

I think Billy Boy is missing something important here.

When I install OpenOffice on a new PC, I just download it, run the installer, click “Next” a lot (and wish for a “setup /yestoall” command). If I want to install it across an organisation, I just make sure that the download lands on a file-server. Done.

On the other hand, when I install MS-Office I have to first go through the trauma of purchasing it. Which involves figuring out what the cheapest version which legally fits the situation is, going out and purchasing physical media (even if off someone’s web site, you have to wade through the annoyance and risk of filling out forms and sending off your credit card details and so on, and wait). Then if there are many machines to do, you have to carefully ensure that each serial number is installed on one machine only and constantly looming in the background is the threat of inspection (the inspection itself can be disruptive), pressure and possibly lawsuit from the BSAA or local equivalent.

If the machine gets totalled by a worm or just suffers bitrot (which Microsoft products are notoriously prone to do), I then have to have recorded the serial numbers for everything on it, so I can put them all back. Worse, it if was an OEM version and there are no original media available, I can’t put it back and so have to find and pay for non-OEM versions in order to be able to legally re-install.

Microsoft work around some of this pain by using OEM programs, so that users don’t have to wade through the details of paying for software separately and sitting through an install which badgers you for answers constantly instead of asking once up-front, it’s all integrated into the purchase price.

However, this in turn is becoming a problem as the price of hardware continues to plummet. Expensive flat-screens helped for a whle by raising the cost of hardware, but now that a 17" flatscreen is down below AUD$300 a hit, a complete system can be had new at retail for around $700, which makes the prices of an OEM OS (AUD$146 for XPToyHome, AUD$253 for XPRealPro) and office suite (AUD$276) bought with the machine significant again (adds 60% for Toy, 75% for Real). And of course, if you have to re-purchase the OS, the price goes up (to AUD$318/469).

It also doesn’t address ongoing and “demobilisation” costs, and systems like OpenOffice and Linux are becoming widely enough recognised that when reinstall time comes, people are more inclined to think along the lines of “this is all becoming too hard/worrisome, I’ll use the free/safe one instead”.

What Bill intends to do about this, I think, is make the computer end of things cheaper and simpler, perhaps a “Vista Fresnel” which is available for very little money but is essentially a platform with just enough functionality to get onto the ’net and hook up to Windows Live. Traditionally, this has been called “a thin client”. If Billgatus of Borg can bring the cost of the hardware dwn to, say, AUD$300 plus, say, AUD$30 (or even free, or ship the whole Frankenstein as an appliance) for “Fresnel” (or whatever they call it), and then extract his own ~AUD$300 per head per year for software-as-services, then his massive cash cows (the OS and office suite) can ride through the paradigm shift essentially unchanged.

From a competitive standpoint, it’s a brilliant stroke against FOSS, because while FOSS advocates can write applications for all they’re worth, they aren’t easily organised to be Application Service Providers, and in the name of security, Microsoft will doubtless retain a stranglehold on what is accessible through “Fresnel” in the name of security, and do their darndest to invent a protocol for it that is very difficult for FOSS advocates to work around.

Bill will get around Installation Key Trauma by “managing” your purchase transactions for you. Painless micropayments. Rent this or that software gadget for a mere 99c a month. Remember Microsoft Wallet? Many smokers look at the roughly 50c each cigarette costs, and don’t add up all of those 50c’s, which for a typical Australian smoker add up to around $7000 a year. Teens don’t tally the cost of each 15c SMS, and wind up either bankrupt or totally bereft of ’phone credit (or both). I expect Microsoft’s services to “nickel and dime you to death” in much the same fashion.

Then one fine day someone will put a backhoe through the corporate ’net connection, or Microsoft will make another blunder like letting the Passport domain registration lapse, or maybe there will be an accounting glitch. The office staff will have no way to do anything for two days. Their documents will be on a server somewhere else — completely inaccessible to them — and suddely another freedom will become very important to them: freedom of access.

The next major event I foresee is a worm on Microsoft’s servers. Such a worm would spread like lightning across the powerful, closely coupled servers and I don’t think even Microsoft would cope well with the prospect of having to first find a solution to the worm and secondly reimage tens or hundreds of thousands of servers, including the precious user data.

If the worm is careful not to signal its presence by being a resource hog until after it starts trashing live data, it might be able to get some or all of the backups as well.

Sadly, I think many prospects for this service won’t realise quite how much of a return to the “totalitarian” mainframe days the software-as-a-service paradigm will be — it will all look so simple and easy up and then there will be a lemming-like “protect our investment” rush to pour good money after bad into the project once they’re hooked.

The rest of Bill’s little gem of wisdom are pretty much ignorable. On the same page is a link to a much more insightful article, which asks:

Is Windows Live just another name for MSN?

From the horse’s mouth, the answer is:

“A lot of the Windows Live services are things that had already been in development by MSN,” Directions on Microsoft analyst Matt Rosoff said.

The only difference I can see is that this time Microsoft are trying to gentle their way in rather than making it all-or-nothing like Blackbird.

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