On Nov. 2, 2001, Microsoft and the United States Department of Justice (DoJ) reached a settlement in the antitrust action against Redmond. The resulting consent decree finally expired this year on May 12. That's a big deal, and not just as a legal matter. The impact on Microsoft-focused developers could be significant.
If you've worked much with Microsoft over the last decade, you know the company has been, in a word, constrained. Sometimes a feature has been missing from a product; sometimes there's been extra secrecy around an early, undocumented build; sometimes releases have been inexplicably delayed. I'd argue that, in many cases, Microsoft's legal trepidations were to blame.
The consent decree caused timidity to replace tenacity, through changes in Microsoft's policy and culture. And I think it's caused a malaise. The Windows API and .NET have lost some command of the market in recent years; Windows Phone faces an enormous uphill battle; Internet Explorer browser usage share -- and the product itself -- have languished since the heyday of Internet Explorer 6, and the team has only recently reversed the trend.
With each of these setbacks, opportunities for Microsoft-focused developers have stayed flat or decreased. The app store distribution model is largely unavailable to us. .NET projects have become fewer, putting pressure on consulting rates and salaries for .NET developers. Even at the coding level there has been impact, as APIs and syntaxes have churned in response to competition. Consider that ASP.NET MVC, Razor and the apparent new focus on HTML5 are responses to competition from Ruby on Rails, PHP and alternative browsers. While it's difficult to prove causation, I'd say Microsoft's legal conservatism has contributed to each of these declines.
Integration Is Integral
In a blog post in February, I paraphrased my fellow Microsoft Regional Director Billy Hollis. He noted that the computing world, especially on the consumer side, has shifted from one of building hardware and software that makes things possible, to building products and technologies that make things easy.
Companies that have delivered on this focus -- including Apple and Google -- have achieved it through tight integration of their products, platforms and services. On Apple iOS devices, the built-in iTunes and App Store own the music and software franchises, and people like the experience. On Android devices, Gmail and Google search are tightly interwoven, and people like that, too.
On the Windows desktop, that integration doesn't exist. Microsoft customers must work to attain an integrated experience, if they can get one at all. An explicit download of Windows Live Essentials is required to get the Microsoft IM client, blogging client and photo editor. The Windows file system doesn't integrate with Windows Azure Storage, SkyDrive or Office 365. Bing and Bing Maps are not especially coupled with the OS. And there's no Windows App Store, at least not yet.
The integration that makes platforms successful is the integration Microsoft has been prevented from implementing. There are exceptions, including on Windows Phone 7 and Zune, but so far these exceptions have been marginal, and I'd say Microsoft's integration-averse strategy is at least part of the reason.
Redmond Back in the Ring?
Now that the consent decree has expired, will Microsoft become more aggressive in using the Windows/Office desktop franchises to drive momentum for Windows Azure, Office 365, Xbox and Windows Phone? Certainly the consent decree's expiration doesn't grant Microsoft free license from the DoJ, and the European Commission will continue in its own antitrust vigilance. But my hope is that Microsoft will now feel emboldened to integrate its products at least as effectively as its competitors do.
Such a makeover is not a certain outcome. The tendency for Microsoft to self-regulate, to second-guess itself and look over its shoulder is now engrained in its psyche. The subjugation of engineering concerns to legal ones is part of an imposed discipline at Microsoft, and it might take a while for re-education to take effect -- assuming it takes place at all.
But something has to happen. Microsoft is out of jail now, and it will have to re-enter the integration society, at least if it is to overcome its numerous market challenges. It's a balancing act to be sure. Microsoft needs to get back in the game, and not in a way that's anti-competitive, but in a way that's very competitive.
Andrew Brust is Research Director for Big Data and Analytics at Gigaom Research. Andrew is co-author of "Programming Microsoft SQL Server 2012" (Microsoft Press); an advisor to NYTECH, the New York Technology Council; co-moderator of Big On Data - New York's Data Intelligence Meetup; serves as Microsoft Regional Director and MVP; and is conference co-chair of Visual Studio Live!