Why is Microsoft suddenly so hot for HTML5?

Well, it's not about customers.

Microsoft has quite aggressively touted HTML5 during PDC 2010, which wraps up today. It's seemingly inconsistent with Microsoft's revamped cloud strategy, which is very much about taking propriety software to the cloud. How then does Microsoft's platform-independent HTML5 approach reconcile with extending the proprietary Office-Windows-Windows Server applications stack into the cloud?

Microsoft product managers talk about customer benefits, and perhaps some of them truly believe that's the reason for supporting HTML5. But there is a more fundamental reason: Apple. Some readers will cock back their heads and ask: "WTF?" Apple also is a big HTML5 supporter. Maybe, but the two companies have very different reasons, with similar objective: Gaining developer and user momentum for their mobile platforms.

For Apple, Adobe's Flash is a competitive threat. If Apple allows Flash free reign on the iOS app store, some developers would use Adobe's technology to create applications. Flash already is used to develop Web applications and has a huge developer following. As such, giving a centimeter to Flash would give it a kilometer. Apple doesn't want a competing development platform on iOS. HTML5 is a better choice, allowing Apple to support standards and its own platforms while beating back a potential competitor.

Suddenly, the context for Apple CEO Steve Jobs' repeated attacks against Flash is clear. I often puzzled about his motives. Last week's announcement that Apple will launch a Macintosh applications store within 90 days makes sense of Jobs' anti-Flash position, which is as much about the computer as the mobile phone. Flash apps are widely available for Macs (and Windows PCs), and Apple's app store will soon enter the competitive space, wooing developers and users. While pundits focused on Flash and mobile as reason for Jobs' anti-Flash rhetoric, he had yet another reason for striking out against Adobe's rich Internet applications toolkit: The Mac. This also makes sense in context of Apple shipping the new MacBook Air without Flash.

By comparison, Microsoft gains against Apple, not Adobe, by supporting HTML5. The problem: Mobile applications. Effectively, Microsoft has none for Windows Phone 7 -- as measured by a couple thousand against the iOS App Store's 300,000 or even the Android Marketplace's 100,000. Microsoft is starting too far behind the new mobile applications race to catch up, let alone win. Perhaps Microsoft's competitive position would be stronger if Windows Phone 7 could leverage more from Office or Windows.

Microsoft's best strategy is to change the rules of engagement -- to use David Thinking. In his 2005 book, How the Weak Win Wars: A Theory of Asymmetric Tactics, political scientist Ivan Arreguín-Toft explains how seemingly weaker opponents can prevail against stronger ones by changing the rules of engagement. He produces excellent historical data showing that, in wars, when smaller rivals use such tactic they are more likely to win, even against mightier opponents. The Biblical example of David vs. Goliath is good analogy. Rather than fight like Goliath -- and almost certainly lose by dawning armor and sword -- David relied on his own strengths. A slingshot and stone kept him out of Goliath's reach but still on the offensive. I call this approach David Thinking.

HTML5-support lets Microsoft change the rules of the engagement, by moving the applications battle to the browser and to the cloud rather than to mobile applications. Microsoft's cloud platform is already ahead of Apple's. The strategy is also counterintuitive. Microsoft successfully built its business by popularizing its own proprietary technologies and extending the benefits (and customer and developer lock-in) through integration. There is no obvious Windows Phone 7 (or Internet Explorer 9) integration benefits to supporting cross-platform HTML5. That's OK. The short-term objective is to make mobile applications less important; apps favor Apple's rival software-services-hardware platform.

The David Thinking approach also explains something that Mary Jo Foley noted earlier today in the post "Microsoft: Our strategy with Silverlight has shifted." If Foley is right, Microsoft has sidelined Silverlight to Windows Phone 7 development, pushing HTML5 for Web applications. That resonates with a broader approach of leveraging Microsoft's existing development tools/platforms to mobile, while more broadly supporting HTML5 for RIAs.

Last week, Gartner predicted that mobile would be a trillion-dollar industry by 2014. It's a market Microsoft doesn't want to be shut out of. One question remains: Will the mobile Web be about the browser or applications? In April, I explained how Apple and Google are fighting over the future of the mobile Web by focusing more on applications or the browser, respectively. Like Google, Microsoft is betting on the browser -- for short-term strategic advantage -- while also trying to leverage existing applications like Office and newer cloud-based offerings. It's a bold approach worthy of praise, regardless of the competitive outcome.

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