Sometime ago I conjectured that Microsoft made certain changes to IE8 to force web standards forward and drop backwards compatibility as default (a very un-Microsoft move) because of the need for the web to break out of the blinkered IE6 / Desktop-Browser view of content otherwise Microsoft would find itself unable to compete in the mobile space. It’s been over a year since that article and in such a short period of time it has become ever clearer that Microsoft’s mobile offerings, and their overall mobile platform strategy are failing against the dominant iPhone, the newcomer Android, and a re-invigorated Palm with WebOS.
Microsoft’s mobile platform has been fragmented by the decision to offer both Windows Mobile 6.5 and Windows Mobile 7 at the same time (when it’s released). Windows Mobile 6.5 will support limited touch capabilities, but it won’t be until the end of 2010 that Windows Mobile 7 will provide full touch capabilities to compete with the iPhone. To distance the product from its past Microsoft are even renaming it “Windows Phone”, a shallow effort to try bury a bad reputation for a bad UI model.
The lack of unification and clarity extends even as far as Microsoft’s rebuilt efforts to compete in the PMP space with the Zune HD. Whilst the Zune HD is a lovely, well built product, the lack of a single focus at Microsoft and a lack of tight integration and cooperation between departments has even clouded the Zune strategy
In an interview the Zune Marketing Manager Brien Seitz’s response was as vague as it was non-committal. In what way is keeping Zune app development close to the chest and hoping that “if there’s a way we can work with Windows Mobile or another group inside the company that’s building an app store and take advantage of that, that’s something we’ll look into” competing with the iPhone AppStore? Or even acknowledging it, for that matter. Hoping that the Windows Mobile team will get their act together so you can leverage their store for Zune is not exactly enthusing budding developers with the desire to develop for the Zune.
The problem is that there simply isn’t anyâ€”brace yourselfâ€”synergy.. happening at Microsoft. Each department is doing its own thing and not working together on a cohesive, integrated system. Why does the Zune require its own music player and not just leverage Windows Media Player? Why isn’t Windows Media Player being upgraded to support even basic features, like podcasting, that iTunes has had for years? Why is it that you have to use the Zune player to get these features? Are Microsoft really expecting people to install the Zune player and go buy a Zune just to get podcasting capabilities? Where on earth is the thinking in Microsoft coming from? Their strategies seem detached from reality.
The web-browser in the Zune is an afterthought, a port of IE6 for Windows Mobile that puts you through a tortured experience. The codebase is incapable of competing with Safari on the iPhone that supports the latest CSS and HTML5 features and lead the way in giving users a browser on a mobile phone that they would actually want to use.
I’m left imagining that Microsoft has a hundred separate departments all rushing to compete with Apple on their own.
How Microsoft Got Here
The boat that I alluded to in the title of this article is Firefox and the modern web-standards movement. Microsoft’s complete lack of movement with IE6 saw them totally blind-sided by a competitor that sprang out of the corpse of the enemy that thought they had fallen for good.
Before 2004 Microsoft were in the very comfortable position of having 95-odd-percent marketshare and no need to change anything with IE. Even if the concept of web apps and the cloud took off, Microsoft were safe in the knowledge that those web apps would be written only for IE, using such wonderful technologies like Active X.
Firefox changed absolutely everything. Microsoft simply didn’t feel threatened by a grass-roots movement to adopt an open-source browser based on the failed Netscape that Microsoft vanquished five years earlier.
And Firefox wasn’t a threatâ€”really. IE still came as default on Windows, businesses would still be using IE and that wouldn’t change anytime. Firefox hasn’t damaged Microsoft, their own inaction has.
The ability to sway the market has been pulled from underneath Microsoft. Web developers are coming up with exciting new apps using web technologies not available in IE. And the market is responding, they’re happy to switch browser if it gets them extra features and gives them access to the websites they want to use.
We’ve seen a complete crumbling to dust of that notion that you need IE. Nobody needs IE, except for businesses stuck with badly-coded Intranets.
And Microsoft have not been able to inject any compelling reason to use IE either. Both IE7 and 8 were lackluster upgrades that caused more headaches then providing people with things they’d actually want.
You just have to run Firefox 3.5, Safari 4, Chrome 3 or Opera 10 next to IE to realise that there simply is no comparison. IE is beat in every single aspect.
HTML5 adoption is progressing quite happily even without offical IE-support. Microsoft can no longer dictate what features the web will have and when, if Microsoft doesn’t provide it, then someone else will and that wasn’t the case in the IE6 days.
Y’see Microsoft’s lack of progress with IE has left them unable to adapt to new emerging markets and technologies. The iPhone completely reinvigorated the stagnant SmartPhone market where companies were practicing such bumbling incompetence with their software / handsets that Palm almost killed itself even without Apple to speak of. The competition that Apple injected into the market sharpened everybody’s minds, and the products accordingly.
That is, except for Microsoft which simply has nothing to show for itself. Microsoft has no single platform strategy. Windows 7 only fixes the problems Vista introduced, it doesn’t bring anything truly new to the table other than a big sigh of relief from users worldwide. It’s still a hulking great disaster (hello, registry, didn’t know you were still there) of a user-space that can’t adapt quickly enough.
Gone On Without You
I strongly believe that Microsoft are three years behind everybody else when it comes to technology and the ability to compete. Microsoft cannot just throw more money and programmers at the problem. This is an organisational / managerial problem that requires them to get the talent they already have working together toward a single platform strategy that can rapidly adapt and apply to new devices and markets.
Trying to catch up simply isn’t good enough. Telling your clients that proper touch-controls won’t be coming to Windows
Mobile Phone until the end of 2010 is no good. Why not just use Android or WebOS now. Or buy a freakin’ iPhone.
Nothing short of replacing the rendering engine of IE with Webkit is going to stop the massive hemorrhaging of market-share that IE is experiencing. IE is pasÃ© now and once you’re out of the loop it’s going to take more than the odd feature and improvement to bring users back. The exodus is well underway and the IE brand has fallen foul of consumers.
To win me back IE would have to be faster than Chrome, have the extensibility of Firefox and support bleeding edge CSS3 and HTML5 features like Webkit. Oh, and not suck UI and security wise. Does anybody seriously believe that that’s going to happen?
By sitting around idly with IE6, Microsoft have let the web overtake them. Innovation is happening faster than Microsoft can keep up. Microsoft are trying to catch up with competitors and social movements that are traveling faster than they are.
I’m not saying that Microsoft are going to collapse and die and all that rubbish, instead I can see from the past that the future is going to be a place where Microsoft are no longer the ones leading the way. Their desktop market-share won’t drastically change, but innovation will move to the web. A place larger, more diverse and faster than Microsoft and a place where Apple have positioned themselves riding right on top of the crest.