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Does Microsoft Care About Firefox? Or, Microsoft as Cloud Infrastructure

It appears that Firefox has captured what I’d call a damn big share of the european browser market share: 28% at its height in 2007. To contrast that, IE fell to 66.1% in the same time.

66.1% (don’t forget that 0.1%!) ain’t nuthin’ to sniff at. But, this rise in Firefox popularity begs the question “does Microsoft care?” Due to that whole monopoly legal action in the 90’s around crushing Netscape, Microsoft’s lawyers are (hopefully!) not letting Microsoft actually do anything to start Browser War II. But, still Firefox has got to be an annoyance to Redmond.

Indeed, Silverlight can be seen as battle against Firefox by changing the battle ground from “the web” to that more proprietary world of RIAs. The same idea of “forking the web” that I was concerned about with Flash and Friends applies to the Silverlight camp. I’m nuts for RIA – I’ve got a whole podcast on them! – but I’m not naive enough to realize that most RIA efforts are an implicit attempt for vendors to get more control over “the web,” if only by attempting to pull people away from the web.

Where’s the Pilot?

Now, before my vendor friends get all upset at me, I want to make clear I’m not exactly being judgmental here. No one has really been minding the web, store, as it were. The last, real “update” to the web was back in 1999! Everything – Ajax, RSS, etc – have been layered on-top of previous work. You could say that’s more an indication of architectural success – and it is – but the non-centralized method of web innovation we’ve seen in the 21st century is much different than we expect “open standards” to work. It’s more like Darwinian standards. And if the initial backlash against HTML5 is a broader indication, it doesn’t seem like the W3C is doing too well.

So then, does controlling the largest browser share matter for Microsoft? Probably not like it used to. Microsoft’s crushing of Netscape was largely a battle about application models: keeping hold of desktop-bound GUIs as the dominate paradigm. Netscape wanted to make everything web applications, cutting out Microsoft from needing a reason to exist as we know it. Now-a-days, we take that RIA, Web 2.0, vision of our UI future for granted. Conceptually, Netscape won that battle even though they lost. And while Microsoft is hanging on for dear life with concepts like “connected services,” their move to (finally) acquire Yahoo! shows that they care a lot more about web application in the their future than desktop-bound, GUI applications.

Interestingly, Adobe will probably beat them to shipping code when it comes to “connected services” when AIR is released (rumors says) next month. But, green-field applications aren’t the near and medium term cash-cow here. All that old crap is.

Retrofitting for the Cloud

They don’t talk about it a whole lot, but also keep your eye on what they call “desktop virtualization.” Microsoft wants the world to know it’s serious about virtualization. And while the industry is obsessed with server virtualization and the vendor sports of seeing if Microsoft will crush VMWare a la Netscape, the more interesting thing Microsoft has going for it is whatever they’re finally going to do with their Softricity acquisition. It’ll look and feel a lot like ASPs of the past and using Terminal Services, Citrix, and all The Children of VNC stuff. But, here’s the cash-cow that’s laying out there to be plucked:

Let’s say corporate IT does go all cloud. Data-centers move outside of the physical possession of corporate IT staff. We still have billions of dollars worth of application that are not tooled to work in a cloud model. They’re still operating on client/server models that depend on speedy, local networks, not spotty, unreliable Internet-based networks. One misplaced anchor can take out huge parts of EMEA. A boat anchor! [Update: turns out it may not have been a boat anchor.]

Companies aren’t going to throw out all of those applications. Even if they wanted to, they probably couldn’t. Instead, as we discussed in last week’s IT Management Guys Podcast, some company needs to come along and provide the bridge-code that helps all of those legacy applications run in a cloud-crazy world.

Whether they’re planning it or not, Microsoft is the natural vendor to tackle this problem and I keep hoping that “desktop virtualization” is basically that: as unsexy as it sounds, “instead of re-writing applications to be web-native, making legacy applications work in a cloud computing world.”

As an historical precedent, look at companies like NetManage that make good money “web facing” old green-screen applications. IT never dies, it just gets jammed in a new type of interface.

In this scenario, Microsoft provides the software to get people to the cloud instead of keep them bound to the ground. They say the expensive part of the satellite industry are the rockets that shoot the satellites into space. If the same is true for cloud computing, then being the rocket manufactures is the better bet. Let the cool kids build the satellites as you count your cash on the ground.

Disclaimer: Microsoft is a client, as is Adobe.

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Categories: Enterprise Software, Ideas, The New Thing.

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3 Responses

  1. "IT never dies, it just gets jammed in a new type of interface."

    Inspiring words, man:

  2. This was a great article. Thank you.

Continuing the Discussion

  1. […] On the other, Microsoft claims this is good for competition, but there is potential fallout.  Cote worries about the impact on Firefox versus IE, for example.  Make no mistake, Firefox is out and IE is in […]