Friday, July 27, 2007

Only a matter of time before Microsoft combines ad business with 'software plus services'

Looking over the reports from the Microsoft financial analysts gathering this week in Redmond, Wash., I'm reminded of baseball ... modern ballparks in particular.

Far as I know, most major league baseball teams have been profitable for many years, many decades. Most of the teams in large cities are doing better than ever, in spanking new stadiums.

What's different now is the explosion of advertisements, endorsements, sponsorships, hucksterism and crass visual commercialism. Whether you attend a game or watch one on television, there isn't a time or place where you are not treated to literally dozens of commercial pitches while you try and figure out the real pitches.

Why on Earth would people who love baseball, or even just tolerate baseball, allow such a plastering of advertisements across their consciousness (and perhaps unconsciousness)? Well, because they don't have a choice, of course.

Baseball, like Microsoft (and soon, Google?), is a monopoly. There are few if any real choices for most anyone who wants to watch a major league game but to incur the ad wrath.

And that's why it's only a matter of time before Microsoft starts injecting scads of ads through their "software plus services" portfolio. That's right, when you open your online (or offline or hybrid-line) applications for a spreadsheet, word processor, email, calendar, ERP interface -- just like you're now thoroughly accustomed to on Web pages and services -- there will be ads. Lots of them. Targeted right to you as an individual or business (or both) with your pre-analyzed budget to spend in anticipation

Local, state, regional, mobile, location-based, keyword-oriented, and fuzzy-warm branding types of ads. All over your visual perimeter -- just like at the ballpark -- you'll be served up ads, ads, ads while you toil away to offer more cookie crumbs of insight into what the next ad should be that you see. Attention!

The implications for this, of course, are enormous. If Microsoft and the other services providers -- for they will all have to follow suit, just like each ballpark followed the other -- can better target these ads to you based on your relationship with them and the technology cauldron that forms from your use of "software plus services," then all the other providers of platforms for online ads will be sunk.

We used to have the division of church and state between media editorial and advertising, but what of the division between technology and advertising? There isn't one. You may think you own your PC (vendors would differ) but you don't own the servers that toss up your "software plus services." You want to play ball? You gotta look at the ads. You gotta see the craplets.

Reminds me of the line from fictional Southie strongman Frank Costello in The Departed: "I don't want to be a product of my environment, I want my environment to be a product of me." You, dear readers, will be a product of the environment that your "software plus services" provider wants for you, based on what's good for their investors.

Even, over the next 3 to 10 years, as the newspaper business thinks it can reinvent its paper-based revenue streams from the Internet, in comes the IT vendors. These "software plus services" providers will -- from start-up of the first craplets when you turn the thing on until the last mouse click before you die -- have you pegged. They will know what you want before you do. No other entity can better match ads to users than a combined IT platform provider and online services provider whose business is based on advertising revenue. The marketers will finally have the tools they've always wanted.

And so those other media company web sites that dish up the highest-quality content, that provide top-line fourth-estate journalism will do okay (we hope), but the largest ad dollars growth will go to those "software plus services" providers that can give the advertisers the best on-target and metrics-based match-up between buyers and sellers. And then the IT companies buy the media companies, and then they buy the telecos and cable and mobile providers. Nice and tidy. On stop shopping to get inside of your head/wallet.

Who to blame? No one. It's inevitable. Government regulators could scarcely keep up, even if they will and budgets existed. If Google and Microsoft don't do it someone else will. Mark Cuban thinks those alternatives could well be the local broadband providers, and he's right ... but only for a time. Once the total online ad monopoly kicks in, it will be a digital Standard Oil on steroids with no Sherman Antitrust Act.

Is Google the white knight and Microsoft the evil empire? Nope. Just like in any good vs evil saga (Star Wars?) both sides need each other desperately. For the better that Google does in making ad-based online applications and services work acceptably, the easier it is for Microsoft to inject that model into its current stable of software, and present it as ... services.

And the more successful (could they be any more successful?) that Microsoft is at providing PC applications and services locally, online or both, the easier it is for Google to make its SaaS alternatives look good enough. These two massively and globally influential companies will ratchet each other up to the level of the modern-day ballpark. It's not either-or, it's both Microsoft and Google propelling the shifts in the market to ad-based everything online, including your business applications, including your high school yearbook.

We are all just going along for the ride. For many of us, we think we get the functional services cheaply because the ads pay for the "software plus services." But when was the last time you saw the price of admission tickets to a ball game fall as they hoisted yet another billboard up over left field?

It won't be ad-based revenue or subscription. No, it will be ad-based revenue and subscription. Has to be. We have no choice.