November 09, 2005

The "Service Wave"

Dave Winer has the Gates and Ozzie memos

Hmmm. No comment on the real content yet (except Gates and Ozzie are pretty bland and self-congratulatory.)

Except here's a first reaction. Ozzie describes the need for a web-platform including advertising, identity etc. Usual web 2.0 stuff. He thinks MS can build it.

But can MS treat it as a "product" and sell it?

Hmm. Maybe everyone should read The Age of Access (get the book from the "Amazon" link), and my my thoughts on Steve Antler's class war between products and services.

The product / service distinction is a deep one for software / knowledge companies. Free software / commons-based peer production is at a saddle-point. Does an economy (or a company) choose a full "service strategy" and thus embrace free-software, commons-based production? Or does it choose a "product strategy" which means embracing intellectual property and the restrictions that implies?

Microsoft is built around championing the product view of software. Even after embracing the web and .NET. If it really plans to reorient itself around services then it has to also embrace peer-production (and free-software is a complement to that).

Or does it? What if MS try to have it both ways? Selling software and content and selling access? I think MS will pull itself apart, as the service and product branches fight each other internally. For example, when MSN Spaces wants to provide more sophisticated free tools and support for developers (to compete with Ning / JotSpot / Rails), but this canibalises "Live Studio"'s customers?

At the same time, a lot of MS's market for tools are for building internal products. These can't be supported by advertising - especially not contextual ads. Are you gonna tell an ad company what you're thinking about internally? (Although that might be kind of interesting in a radical transparency way :-)

So MS will want to rent access to it's development tools. But this creates a strange dynamic : it's cheaper for the open / commons based development communities (who presumably don't mind ad-supported tools that know what's going on with their work) than for secrecy-based companies who have to rent the tools. (Essentially they're renting privacy) How much is privacy worth?

Actually, open development platforms remind me of source-code search like Koders and CodeFetch which allows massively parallel code-sharing. Where does that fit in here? If search is the heart of internet services (as proved by Google), is code-search the heart of a peer-based community software production platform?

This matters to MS because in their souls MS are a geek company. From their first product Basic through QuickBasic to VisualBasic and VisualStudio, MS dominance has been based on giving their system developers some great tools, and their application programmers both the tools and sneak-previews of their platforms.

It's hard to imagine an MS managing to maintain control over their ecosystem without also owning their own development tools and using those to drive their agenda. It's the energy that powers their fire and motion.

MS couldn't let their application developers use Java and become dependent on Sun's timetable and agenda. Nor will they let themselves become dependent on Ning or Rails for their Live offerings.

OK, coming back to the memo. Ozzie's "seamless" checklist is a bit vague and all encompassing. His moving forward doesn't mention tools. (Except "lightweight development" which is necessary but not sufficient.) There are sensible foci : reducing complexity - given that the explosion of this is what makes life so difficult for MS and that extreme simplicity (worse is better) is what makes the web so succesful; agile development (faster release cycle, one user story at a time); standards.

Ozzie is smart. Microsoft are too. And Microsoft are on the Cluetrain

But the web-as-platform is disruptive to Microsoft, not just because it's new, innovative and different but because it breaks their "software as product" business model. And they need to find an alternative way to get paid. If they can't, it won't be the web-as-platform which loses.

If MS want to dominate the web-as-platform they also need to find a way to own enough of the developers' tools that they set the agenda. And that's going to be tricky without embracing free software. An experiment with genuinely freeing the source of something would send a very interesting signal that they were really serious here. But it would also be very controversial. It would be an admission of "failure" on their part.

But MS can't have it both ways. They can't acknowledge the service model without also acknowledging the product model is broken. And that will be the real test of their mettle.
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