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Glyn Moody's look at all levels of the enterprise open source stack. The blog will look at the organisations that are embracing open source, old and new alike (start-ups welcome), and the communities of users and developers that have formed around them (or not, as the case may be).

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Something Happened: Where's Microsoft?

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As you may have heard, last week there was a bit of kerfuffle over Google's Buzz and its implications for privacy. And Google has responded:

We've heard your feedback loud and clear, and since we launched Google Buzz four days ago, we've been working around the clock to address the concerns you've raised. Today, we wanted to let you know about a number of changes we'll be making over the next few days based on all the feedback we've received.

First, auto-following. With Google Buzz, we wanted to make the getting started experience as quick and easy as possible, so that you wouldn't have to manually peck out your social network from scratch. However, many people just wanted to check out Buzz and see if it would be useful to them, and were not happy that they were already set up to follow people. This created a great deal of concern and led people to think that Buzz had automatically displayed the people they were following to the world before they created a profile.

On Thursday, after hearing that people thought the checkbox for choosing not to display this information publicly was too hard to find, we made this option more prominent. But that was clearly not enough. So starting this week, instead of an auto-follow model in which Buzz automatically sets you up to follow the people you email and chat with most, we're moving to an auto-suggest model. You won't be set up to follow anyone until you have reviewed the suggestions and clicked "Follow selected people and start using Buzz."

What's interesting is that (a) Google could overlook something so obvious and so fundamental and that (b) it responded not once but twice in a matter of days. That's really living on Internet time, and shows how things have changed from the “old days” - a few years ago, say – when errors were baked into software and would have taken months to sort out.

But that wasn't the only thing to happen last week. Rather hidden by the excitement over Buzz was another announcement from Google:

We're planning to build and test ultra high-speed broadband networks in a small number of trial locations across the United States. We'll deliver Internet speeds more than 100 times faster than what most Americans have access to today with 1 gigabit per second, fiber-to-the-home connections. We plan to offer service at a competitive price to at least 50,000 and potentially up to 500,000 people.

Our goal is to experiment with new ways to help make Internet access better and faster for everyone. Here are some specific things that we have in mind:

Next generation apps: We want to see what developers and users can do with ultra high-speeds, whether it's creating new bandwidth-intensive "killer apps" and services, or other uses we can't yet imagine.

New deployment techniques: We'll test new ways to build fiber networks, and to help inform and support deployments elsewhere, we'll share key lessons learned with the world.

Openness and choice: We'll operate an "open access" network, giving users the choice of multiple service providers. And consistent with our past advocacy, we'll manage our network in an open, non-discriminatory and transparent way.

Google began, you will recall, as a research project into search: rolling out up to half a million 1 gigabit/second fibre optic connections to end users as an experimental project indicates just how far Google has evolved. Equally dramatic in that respect has been its move into the mobile world with Android. Again, the connection with search may not be immediately clear, but is all to do with trying to predict the future by inventing it: Google wants to make sure that whatever happens in terms of how the Internet develops, it is well placed to thrive there, be it on super-fast gigabit/second fibre, or ubiquitous computing devices that slip into your pocket.

Google isn't the only company that is constantly re-inventing itself. Perhaps the most dramatic example is Apple, which was all but written off a few years back. But instead of disappearing, it has colonised the profitable niche of top-end computing systems, particularly portable ones, and gone on to re-shape not just itself, but two entire markets.

The first was digital music, which was rather languishing under the repeated attacks of the purblind recording industry, which thought it could maintain its analogue-world role as an indispensable intermediary between artists and audience. Using his seemingly hypnotic powers, Steve Jobs managed to persuade the recording industry to accept his iTunes + iPod offering, and digital music took off as never before among the general population.

Just as significant was Jobs' decision to enter the world of mobile phones. The iPhone re-defined what a modern smartphone should be, and accelerated the increasing convergence of computers and telephony. Many believe that with its iPad Apple stands poised to bring into being yet another major market sector, and to transform digital publishing just as completely as it has already affected digital music.

Whatever you think of these recent happenings, one thing is clear: not a single one of the most exciting events in computing – Buzz, gigabit/second fibre networking, iPad, Android and the rest – has come from Microsoft. Indeed, the way in which Google and Apple have completely drowned out any news from that company for months on end is without precedent and, I believe, a major watershed.

For we are witnessing the end of Microsoft's reign as king of computing – not with a bang, but a whimper. Of course, Microsoft will not disappear – I fully expect it will still be hanging on for decades, generating nice dividends for its shareholders – but it will simply be irrelevant in all the key areas.

It has consistently failed in the online search market; but, more generally, I don't know of any online services that Microsoft has launched that have made any impact whatsoever. Things are just as bad in the mobile market: although Windows Mobile still has some market share for historical reasons, I don't think anyone, anywhere, wakes up in the morning thinking “I simply must buy a Windows Mobile phone today” in the way that people manifestly do for Apple's iPhone or for one of the latest Android models like Motorola's Droid or HTC's Hero (even I bought one of the latter a few months back.)

As for the digital music market, Microsoft's Zune has practically become a by-word for electronic embarrassment, so bad and unloved is the system. And even in a sector where Microsoft's market-share is more respectable – that of gaming consoles – the infamous “Red Ring of Death” problem threatens to tarnish its reputation there, too.

This leaves the mainstream computing sector as Microsoft's stronghold. Despite constant attempts by pundits (including this one) to descry a “Year of the GNU/Linux Desktop”, Windows shows little sign of losing its grip on the desktop. But what has become increasingly clear is that most computing will be conducted through either the browser – for cloud computing services, for example – or through smartphones like the iPhone and Android devices. Both render the desktop operating system completely moot (not least because Firefox is rapidly moving towards parity with Internet Explorer in many national markets), so whether it's Windows or GNU/Linux that sits at the bottom of the stack is really irrelevant.

But you don't have to take my word for it. Someone far better placed than me is Dick Brass, who was a vice president at Microsoft from 1997 to 2004. Here's what he wrote in the New York Times recently:

Microsoft has become a clumsy, uncompetitive innovator. Its products are lampooned, often unfairly but sometimes with good reason. Its image has never recovered from the antitrust prosecution of the 1990s. Its marketing has been inept for years; remember the 2008 ad in which Bill Gates was somehow persuaded to literally wiggle his behind at the camera?

While Apple continues to gain market share in many products, Microsoft has lost share in Web browsers, high-end laptops and smartphones. Despite billions in investment, its Xbox line is still at best an equal contender in the game console business. It first ignored and then stumbled in personal music players until that business was locked up by Apple.

Microsoft’s huge profits — $6.7 billion for the past quarter — come almost entirely from Windows and Office programs first developed decades ago. Like G.M. with its trucks and S.U.V.’s, Microsoft can’t count on these venerable products to sustain it forever. Perhaps worst of all, Microsoft is no longer considered the cool or cutting-edge place to work. There has been a steady exit of its best and brightest.

What happened? Unlike other companies, Microsoft never developed a true system for innovation. Some of my former colleagues argue that it actually developed a system to thwart innovation. Despite having one of the largest and best corporate laboratories in the world, and the luxury of not one but three chief technology officers, the company routinely manages to frustrate the efforts of its visionary thinkers.

This failure to innovate is deeply ironic, because time and again Microsoft has invoked innovation as the main reason why it should not be hit with restrictive anti-trust rulings by the US or EU, and why we “need” software patents. The bankruptcy of that position has now been exposed in the cruellest possible manner by the failure of the company to innovate in *any* sector.

I would suggest that its biggest failure in this regard was refusing to recognise that the fastest and easiest way to innovate is to build on the work of others by using open source code. Google's success is almost entirely born of its deployment of free software at every level. It has enabled the company to innovate by dipping into the huge pool of freely-available code and fine-tuning it for particular applications, be it in the massive server farms for search, or for the Android stack in mobile – both built on top of Linux.

Even Apple, the acme of corporate control-freakery, has recognised that it makes sense to draw on open source elements – for example, FreeBSD and WebKit - as the basis of its offerings, and then to innovate like crazy on top. Refusing to acknowledge this fact today is as foolish as refusing to use TCP/IP for networking.

Something happened – not just this week, or last week, or even during the last few months, but during the last decade. Free software has risen to become an indispensable force that touches everything that is most vibrant and innovative in computing; and Microsoft, the company that has been least willing to recognise that ascent, has paid the ultimate price with its corresponding decline.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca.

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