April 10, 2007

Paul Graham thinks Microsoft is Dead. Dave Winer disagrees. Sort of.

The caveats don't matter. Graham's greater point is compelling. Microsoft don't really seem to be making it as an Internet Playa. They've neither come up with any really compelling or exciting software on the web-as-a-platform in the last seven years nor have they bought any of the interesting new web 2.0 companies. In fact, the last interesting thing MS did was buy Hotmail which was about 10 years ago.

10 years??? !!!!



In the meantime, it more or less looks like they've bet everything on Vista and lost, big time. The desktop operating system is a commodity. There's no (and will be no) interesting software that really needs Vista. Web served applications can run as easily on Unix. Office and Photoshop will run as easily on Macintosh. And browser-based software will run anywhere.

Microsoft may still have platforms that matter - though it's not easy to imagine where : ASP.NET essential to web-based apps? XBox beating Wii or PS3? Ray Ozzie, their great hope, seems to be missing in action, last seen a year ago speculating about his clipboard while Yahoo has Pipes up and running.

Graham's suggestions for restoring Microsoft's relevance aren't nearly as interesting as mine.

Now, of course, the funny thing is in my day job I use nothing but Microsoft software. I basically live in Windows and (and this may reflect my new status as a project managery kind of guy) Excel.

In fact, this is something I'm trying to think about more. Excel is a truly great piece of software; it's Microsoft's masterpiece. Word is an OK Word Processor. Access is A.N.Other database. Powerpoint is ... well frankly let's not go there.

But Excel is wonderful. It's the universal, "Swiss Army" desktop solution with dozens of little functional "blades". Want a "to-do" list? Excel. Want a status report? Excel? Want to do some calculations? Excel. Want to do some basic string processing? I write VBA macros for the same kinds of simple data crunching that I'd use Perl for in Unix. Want to make a couple of graphs and charts? Excel. Want to mock up some forms? Want to make tables of data and sort and filter them? You guessed it ...

And not only does Excel does all this, it makes it all pretty intuitive. Have a look at how they do Pivot Tables for an example of something pretty slick.

No-one else is even close. Not Google's online spreadsheet. Not Open Office's attempts at catching up. Not WikiCalc. Microsoft's advantage with Excel is undisputed. It's all theirs to throw away.

And what sucks most about Excel? The fact that people are always mailing spreadsheets around to each other and they have trouble keeping a single, up-to-date copy between them. What they need is Excel socialized. And where's socialized Excel? Caught up in turf-wars and lost behind a bunch of vague, confusing products like "SharePoint" and technologies like Excel Services.

Now, if I ran Microsoft, and I was worried about Microsoft being dead, I'd be making the most I could of Excel : pumping money and smart people and advertising into it, setting up skunk-works, hiring clever explainers to get simple messages out, as loudly and clearly as possible.

In particular I'd have :

  • Excel Studio : a complete development environment for people to build new applications on top of the Excel engine or to compile spreadsheet-based prototypes into other pieces of software.

  • A Social Excel : the Excel client would allow many people to work on a shared spreadsheet either via a central web-server, LAN server, or simply sync. multiple users together over P2P (imagine something like a Skype call working on one spreadsheet.)

  • Excel Live : a free, central web-based server to set up groups sharing the same spreadsheet with (obviously) Wiki-like (WikiCalc-like) hyper-linking between spreadsheets

  • Excel Express : a completely free-as-in-beer cut-down version of Excel that anyone could download and use to work on a shared spreadsheet. I'd want Excel Express to be as easily available and viral as Skype or Pando.

99% of the world's "semi-structured" data is not in Microformats but in tables in spreadsheets. And, Microsoft pretty much own that. But there's a huge demand (and opportunity) to put it all on the internet. Like I say, this is Microsoft's platform to lose.
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