Friday, April 15, 2011

How Microsoft could win the next round of the ecosystem wars

Computing paradigms have shifted dramatically over the last thirty years.  From the battle for the desktop, to the battle for the browser, the battle for the phone and so on.  While these battles raged there were longer term wars that can better be termed wars over ecosystems.  Microsoft didn't just have the Windows OS, they had Office, DirectX for gaming, IE as the default and most support browser and millions of windows applications and users settled into their system.  While their influence in the browser realm has waned significantly they are still the king when it comes to business desktops and the vast majority of home users.  However, in the server marketplace they got their clocks cleaned by Linux.  In the gaming world, consoles dominated but the hardware stagnated and cheap to develop phone games now compete against blockbuster budget titles running on six year old hardware.  Their new Windows phone has to compete with already established Apple, Android and Blackberry.

It would seem the only way for Microsoft to go is down.

 In fact, that's probably the direction they'll take and its because they're losing the ecosystem war for the home.  Microsoft's big plus has always been the desktop but Google and Apple have both whittled away at the features that a desktop provides.  Of course, Apple offers a desktop, or laptop, or tablet. They also offer products to do backups, play from the apple library on TV or a speakers and sync with phones and iPods.  Its the Apple ecosystem.  Google's ecosystem also exists but its not as coherent.  There's tablets and phones, and GoogleTV, and ChromeOS on tablets, and the Chrome browser with its app store and the various Google apps.  Its more reliant on third parties and the software is still forthcoming (the mythical "Ice Cream" successor to Honeycomb that will tie everything together).  If Apple is the threat that's staring Microsoft in the face, Google is the one that's  fumbling around behind it maybe about to drop a really big axe.

Now, Microsoft has an ecosystem too, but its the Hawaii of ecosystems, fragmented into dozens of pieces that really don't interoperate to any significant extent beyond attracting the scrutiny of the EU Antirust commission.  There's the Xbox 360, which does do a good job of incorporating MS's various video, game and music services together in its marketplaces.  The music marketplace, the Zune marketplace is named for the now defunct music player that was killed off by MS in the warm up for the Windows Phone 7.  There's Office, which is the golden goose, not even worth discussing really, they rake in their cash and don't want anything to do with anyone else.  Then there's search, email and social networking.  Extra emails are fine, maintaining extra networks are annoying and bing search is like google with different ads.

This leaves what I want to talk about, media center.  Now, there's been rumors that MS might be ditching media center on the PC for the embedded market.  This is half smart.  Its half smart because MS has the only good OS that can work with CableCards and it lets the cable companies offer a product that's competitive with Tivo and the networked Blu-Ray players.  Its only half smart because an embedded device will 90% guaranteed be a POS locked down slightly fancy cable box when instead it could be Microsoft's tour de force in the ecosystem wars.

Here's how it works.  Microsoft just happens to have a best of both worlds solution.  The Windows platform is open enough that you can run all kinds of software on it but its also very DRM friendly so it can play just about any DRM'd file without a problem.  Its also very app friendly, there's no need to have a separate market for it. The one difficulty is in keeping the secure area secure, but that's something that Microsoft appears to have managed very well so far with their DRM'd media.  The key feature is that the device could offer a Cablecard and video recording.  Having played with media center, its a step up from a regular cable box but still not great.  However, there's nothing preventing Microsoft from taking good software like XBMC and making it work seamlessly with multiple sources including recorded video.  One of the things that's just fantastically, stupid is organizing files by source rather than title and if MS could pull their weight and provide the kind of interface where you just pick the TV show or movie you want and then pick the source rather than having to pick Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, Local  first, it would be a game changed..
Another thing that Microsoft could do is smart syncing of media.  For example, say you have an iPhone, Xoom, and Droid Incredible and you are browsing a TV show and want to sync it to the Droid Incredible, the software could identify whether or not the file is natively playable, if not create a playable conversion and then sync it.  Apple could never do this because they don't play outside their ecosystem.

Its wishful thinking at this point and honestly, I don't know that there's anyone still at Microsoft with the personality to pull off this kind of project.  It would be a shot across the bow of pretty much every cable company in America, basically saying rather than pay $15 b a month for a crap cable box you can pay $4 for a CableCard, store hundreds of shows and movies, sync your shows to your phones, play your shows in any room in the house, play Xbox 36o Games, get Itunes, get Rhapsody, get Netflix, get Hulu, get Youtube, video chat, check Facebook/twitter/email, etc.  Or they can shitcan media center for PC and make the crappy embedded windows box for the cable companies you end up paying $15 a month for.

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