Monday, February 4, 2008

Microsoft-Yahoo! combination could yield an Orwellian Web world

About 10 years ago, we used to ask Jim Barksdale, then head of Netscape, a stock question during news conferences. Did you bag any "default browser" deals lately? Inevitably Jim would demur and say they were still trying.

Those were the days when the light was swiftly fading from the Netscape's browser's beacon, and Microsoft's newcomer (and inferior) browser, Internet Explorer, was bagging the default status for PC distributors and online services. That was enough to cement Microsoft's dominance of the Web browser market globally in a few short years.

The fact is, in an online world, convenience is the killer application. For most folks starting up their PCs, whatever comes up on the screen first and easiest is what they tend to use. That's why we have craplets, it's why Netscape bit the dust, and it's why Microsoft's unsolicited bid to buy Yahoo! is Redmond's last grasp at their old worldwide Web dominion strategy. The only way for Microsoft to hold onto its PC monopoly is to gain a Web monopoly too.

And Microsoft would have a good shot at cementing those two as a monopoly with the acquisition of Yahoo!. Because for the vast majority of people who simply do no more than fire up their PCs, click to start their browsers, open a Microsoft Word document, an Outlook calendar entry, an online email or instant message -- they will entering (mostly unbeknownst to themselves) a new default Web services environment.

With both Yahoo!'s and Microsoft's directories of users integrated, the miracle of single sign-on makes them in the probable near future part of the Microsoft advertising network, the Microsoft ID management complex, the Microsoft "software plus services" environment -- all by default, all quite convenient. And once you're in as a user, and once the oxygen is cut off to the competition, the world begins to look a lot more like Windows Everywhere over time.

Indeed, the proposed Microsoft takeover of Yahoo! is really the continuation of the failed (but strategically imperative) Hailstorm initiative. You might recall how Microsoft wanted to use single sign-on to link any users of Hotmail, or Instant Messanger, or Microsoft's myriad Web portals and services (MSN) to all be onramps to the same federated ID management overlay to reach all kinds of services. It was the roach motel attempt to corner the burgeoning network -- use Internet protocols, sure, but create a separate virtual Web of, by, and for Microsoft. The initiative caused quite a donnybrook because it seemed to limited users' ability to freely navigate among other Internet services -- at least on a convenient basis (and for a price).

So Microsoft's first stab at total Web dominance worked at the level of gaining the default browser, but failed at the larger enterprise. Microsoft thought it was only a matter of time, however. And it planned prematurely to begin pulling users back from the Web into the Microsoft world of single sign-on access to Microsoft services -- from travel, to city directories, to maps, to search. Microsoft incorrectly thought that the peril of Web as a Windows-less platform had been neutralized, it's competitors' oxygen cut off. Microsoft began to leverage its own Web services and monopoly desktop status to try and keep users on its sites, using its Web server, and its Web browser and its content offerings -- making for the Microsoft Wide Web, while the real Web withered away for use by scientists (again).

But several unexpected things happened to thwart this march into a Big Brother utopia -- a place where users began and ended their digital days (as workers and consumers) within the Microsoft environment. Linux and Apache Web Server stunted the penetration of the security risk Internet Information Services (nee Server) (IIS). AOL created a bigger online home-based community. Mozilla became a fine and dandy Web browser alternative (albeit not the default choice). Java became a dominant language for distributed computing, and an accepted runtime environment standard.

Dial-up gave way to broadband for both homes and businesses. The digital gusher was provided by several sources (many of which were hostile to to Microsoft and its minions). Software as a service (Saas) became viable and succeeded. And, most importantly, Google emerged as the dominant search engine and created the new economics of the Web -- search-based juxtaposed automated link ads.

Microsoft had tried to gain the Web's revenues via dominance of the platform, rather than via the compelling relationship of convenience of access to all the relevant information. Microsoft wanted Windows 2.0 instead of Web 2.0.

Social networks like MySpace LinkedIn, and Facebook replaced AOL as the communities of choice. And resurgent IBM and Apple were containing Microsoft at the edges, and even turning their hegemony back meaningfully. Mobile networks were how many of the world's newest Internet users access content and services, sans a Microsoft client.

And so only a mere three years ago, Microsoft's plans for total dominance were dashed, even though they seemingly had it all. Just like Tom Brady, they just couldn't hold on to cement the sweep, and their perfect season ended before the season itself was over. What Microsoft could not control was the Internet, thirst for unfettered knowledge, and the set of open standards -- TCP/IP & HTML -- that sidesteps Windows.

Yet at every step of the way Microsoft tried to buy, bully, create or destroy in order to control the onramps, applications, developers, content, media, and convenience of the Web - even if the genie was out of the bottle. They did their own dial-up networks, they had proxies buy up cable franchises, they tried to dominate mobile software. They created television channels, and publishing divisions, and business applications. They largely failed against an open market in everything but their original successes: PC platform, productivity apps, tools, and closed runtime.

And so the bid for Yahoo! both underscores that failure as well as demonstrates the desperate last attempt to dominate more than their desktop software monopoly. This is a make or break event for Microsoft, and has huge ramifications for the futures of several critical industries.

If Redmond succeeds with acquiring Yahoo!, imagine a world that was already once feared, back some 10 years ago. That is an Orwellian world in which a huge majority of all users of the Internet globally can -- wittingly or otherwise -- only gain their emails, their word processing, their news, their services, their spreadsheets, their data, their workflow -- all that which they do online essentially -- only by passing through the Microsoft complex and paying their tolls along the way.

All those who wish to reach that mass audience, be it on a long tail or conventional mass markets basis, must use what de facto standards Microsoft has anointed. They must buy the correct proprietary servers and infrastructure, they must develop on the proscribed frameworks. They must view the world through Microsoft Windows, at significant recurring cost. Would Microsoft's historic economic behavior translate well to such control over knowledge, experience, and personal choice?

This may sound shrill, but a dominant federated ID management function is the real killer application of convenience that is at stake today. Google knows it, and quietly and mostly responsibly linked many of its services to a single sign-on ID cloud. When you get a gmail account, it becomes your passport to many Google services, and it contains much about your online definition, as well as aids and abets the ability to power the automated advertising juggernaut that Microsoft rightly fears. But at least Google (so far) lets the content and media develop based on the open market. They don't exact a mandatory toll as much as take a portion of valued voluntary transactions, and they remain in support of open standards and choice of platforms.

We now may face a choice between a "do no evil" philosophy of seemingly much choice, or an extend-the-monopoly approach that has tended to limit choice. The Microsoft monopoly has already needed to be reigned in by global regulators who fear a blind ambition powerhouse, or who fear unmitigated control over major aspects of digital existence. Orwell didn't know how political power would be balanced or controlled in his future vision, perched as he was at the unfortunate mid-20th century.

How the power of the Internet is balanced is what now is at stake with the Microsoft-Yahoo! bid. Who can you trust with such power?