Steve Ballmer's denial can't stop change from coming

"On résiste à l'invasion des armées; on ne résiste pas à l'invasion des idées." -- Victor Hugo
Literal translation: "One withstands the invasion of armies; one does not withstand the invasion of ideas."
Often paraphrased: "Nothing is as powerful as an idea whose time has come."

Web-based operating system/platform is an idea whose time has come, whether or not Google succeeds with Chrome OS. Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer can deny it. He can march his Office 2010 and Windows 7 armies into the enterprise. But, elsewhere, the Web platform is turning from idea to practical reality -- in large part because of mobile handsets.

Yesterday, on the one-year anniversary of App Store, Apple announced that iPhone users had downloaded 1.5 billion mobile applications. It's a momentous achievement for a relatively new platform. That's one sign of big changes coming. A new applications stack is emerging, from mobile device to the cloud. Steve Ballmer doesn't get it, even as Microsoft embraces cloud computing tied to the dominant Office-Windows-Windows Server applications stack.

BetaNews has transcribed portions of his comments from Microsoft's annual partner conference:

"What we really do understand is that the model of the future brings together the best of today's rich client Windows-style applications and some of the things that people consider the best of the Web. People like the deployment model, you click on a link and you get your application deployed. People like the notion that, kind of, the globe from an information perspective, and a people perspective, is built in. And people like the richness and visualization and responsiveness and offline characteristics of the Windows applications."

"So as we talk about where we're going, we don't need a new operating system. What we need to do is to continue to evolve Windows, Windows applications, IE [Internet Explorer], the way IE works in totality with Windows, and how we build applications like Office, like the stuff we showed here, and we need to make sure we can bring our customers and partners with us."

The people who download applications from Apple, BlackBerry, Google, Nokia or Palm mobile stores are not getting "Windows-style applications." These applications are lightweight and many are Web connected. Widgets running on my Nokia N97 keep persistent Web connections.

Microsoft's CEO will never understand the real power of the Web platform, but deny it, because:

  • He's a salesman who makes customers the top priority. The approach his commendable. But what his enterprise customers tell him they want today holds Microsoft back from reaching tomorrow.
  • Microsoft corporate culture is fixated on building up from existing products into new areas. This integration brings sales leverage for future products, which are chained to existing ones.
  • Related: Next to security and extended integration, Microsoft's top design priority is backward compatibility. So, for the benefit of customer satisfaction, Microsoft looks too much behind while trying to move ahead.

Steve Ballmer has interesting ideas about where most people spend most of their time. He told Microsoft partners, yesterday:

"The truth of the matter is, there's good data that actually says that about 50 percent of the time, somebody's on their PC, at least 50 percent they're not doing something in the Web browser. So what we need is an operating system that brings local richness together with the Internet, and Windows is the operating system for the job."

Really, now? Fifty-percent of the time in a Web browser is a helluva lot. There is the other 50 percent. How much of that is in applications connected to the Web? I currently have five applications open, other than Web browser, and all are connected to the Internet. Meanwhile, I have seven browser tabs open to Web services, including the blogging platform for this post. So I'll ask you: How much of what you regularly do on a computer (or even smartphone) is connected to the Web? Please answer in comments.

Steve Ballmer's statement about an OS bringing "local richness together with the Internet" could as easily describe Android, iPhone OS, Mac OS, any Linux distribution or Chrome OS. Even Google's new operating system will have to run something locally.

Microsoft's CEO is right to be perplexed about Google bringing to market two operating systems: "The last time I checked, you don't need two client operating systems. We tried it before -- Windows 95 and Windows NT. It's good to have one. So I can't, I don't really don't know what's up at Google." Nor do I. Android or Chrome OS should be enough. Not both.

That said, Chrome OS, or something like it, is an idea whose time has come. Netscape wanted to bring a Web-based OS to market in the late 1990s. It wasn't the right time, Microsoft outmaneuvered Netscape with Internet Explorer and Internet Information Server bundling and Netscape wasn't the right company. By comparison, the time is right, Microsoft's responsiveness is hampered by European and US antitrust oversight and Google is the right company. Or Apple.

Web 1.0 and Web 2.0 were about the PC. Web 3.0 is about the mobile device and the cloud. In a future post, I'll explain the major factors that make Web 3.0 about the mobile device-to-cloud applications stack. Two for now: Ubiquitous and fast Internet connectivity; search utility and potential third-party profitability.

Wrapping up, Steve Ballmer's emphasis on customers shouldn't be a liability, but it is for Microsoft. Innovation isn't about listening to what customers want, but giving them something they didn't realize they needed. This is the fundamental difference between how Apple and Microsoft develop new products. Microsoft caters to enterprises and their fickle and risk-adverse behavior. That's good for Office, Windows and Microsoft server products today. Tomorrow is an idea whose time already is passing.

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