One of the things I love about open source is that there’s a huge amount of power in the idea that you can use, and indeed co-operate on, a whole ecosytem of generalised, robust, re-usable components, and then combine, configure and supplement them into something that is greater than the sum of its parts – into a final result which concentrates on being extremely good at a particular task. There was a time that to create something awesome in a particular space, you’d either have to buy in lots of expertise or you’d have to invent it yourself, before you ever got to the interesting bit that mattered. Open source totally flattens the landscape, and at a stroke makes the software world far more interesting as innovations can happen on the back of shared experience.
This also comes at a time when our use of technology is fragmenting – the PC isn’t the sole device through which we view the tech world anymore, we use all kinds of other devices all suspended in the Internet soup, and the devices that win the most favour are those that are again specialised for the task / environment in hand.
So what does this mean? It means making generalist software such as regular beige-box operating systems is rapidly becoming quite uninteresting, and not something you can sell much product based on (unless you’re in the position of being able to leverage a huge existing install base). Generalism belongs in open source libraries, lego bricks which while fairly uninteresting in and of themselves, can be built into vast arrays of much more interesting combinations. As a commercial outfit, being the generalist jack of all trades really doesn’t get you very much attention any more. Wowing people with how well you can address a particular problem is what gets you noticed.
I say all this in the context of Google’s release of the Chromium OS last week. While it’s not being sold in its own right, make no mistake that it’s definitely selling you something – specifically Google hosted app services. And it’s also a prime example of heavy specialisation – it’s only designed to work with hosted apps, nothing local. Some may scoff at that, and indeed it’s not exactly practical right now for all but specific cases, but that’s the point – it’s an angle, it’s a specific pitch at a specific audience, and as such it differentiates itself. Increasingly that’s what interests people about a product, even if they’re not in that particular segment yet. It’s not trying to please everyone, it’s just trying to polish the offering for a particular subset of the market. I see this becoming more rather than less common.
Many have observed that Google is basically just like Apple, but for hosted software rather than hardware. Apple give you a specialised experience which is a combination of hardware and software, mainly so they can sell you some sexy premium hardware. They specialise in making that particular experience the best they can, they don’t try to be all things to all people at once, and it works for them. People notice them as a brand and associate certain things with them inherently – sleek hardware, intuitive interfaces etc. The same goes for Google – they’re known for their free online services and want you to gravitate towards the commercial services they provide either yourself, or your company through the well-understood principle of employees nudging their company to use the stuff they already like.
So it’s interesting to think about where Microsoft sits in this environment. They’re still obscenely profitable of course, more so than a specialist like Apple, but they’re also increasingly perceived as the ‘dull’ option. On phones, the consumer is raving over the iPhone, and to a lesser extent Palm Pre and Android, while Windows smartphones are increasingly overlooked. Windows 7 is trying to shake things up with some new features, but when it comes down to it, Windows is a workhorse at heart, as is their other flagship, Office. That doesn’t mean they’re bad products – in fact being a decent workhorse for a vast range of uses is hard – but they’re not exactly exciting; you don’t look at a Microsoft product and desire it like you do when you look at the latest Mac laptops or an iPhone (or maybe that’s just me), nor do they get as much community buzz as Google Wave did (deserved or not). Now, given that most of Microsoft’s revenues come from Enterprise users (for whom ‘dull’ is often a desirable feature!) and PC bundles anyway, they aren’t really affected by consumer aspirations, so maybe this lack of a sexy brand is not an issue. Despite years of people saying Microsoft is due to be made irrelevant by Linux or OS X, and releasing a pretty undesirable version of one of their flagship products (Vista), their influence has not waned that much, although it has come down somewhat from what was a frankly unhealthy peak of dominance a few years back. But, nothing ever stays the same forever. Are people in the boardrooms at Microsoft worried that they don’t really have an ‘image’ that ordinary people can relate to positively? The Windows 7 adverts would suggest they do care about this enough to spend quite a lot of money on it, and to create such astoundingly cringe-worthy content as the Windows 7 Party Guides. I hate to think what cocktail of drugs those actors had to take to get them through that particular horror, or what counselling they will need in the aftermath.
But whatever, Microsoft would be right to be concerned about their image, which remains rather vague (mostly because MS seemingly tries to have its fingers in every pie just in case it misses something, but doesn’t excel in very many) . Regardless of all the lengthy and dehumanised procurement procedures, the general inertia which is present at the heart of every large organisation, the inherent resitance to change and dependence on paternalistic vendors that worms its way deep into IT departments; having large numbers of people desire your products on an individual level still matters. It might take a bunch of years to filter through, but that’s where the trends are, at the grass roots – eventually they will drag the enterprise kicking and screaming in that direction too. I’m sure Microsoft knows this, but so far hasn’t really got to grips with a genuine ‘identity’ that appeals to regular people. Arguably the 360 has done best at this, but it’s unlikely that there’s much of an image halo (sic) effect to Windows/Office there, in the same way that you get with the iPod/iPhone and the Mac. Microsoft don’t have much to worry about just yet, but like a trickle of water that carves a canyon eventually, it’s something they must be concerned about long term. Being a decent generalist just doesn’t make waves; it’s time to find a specific vision people can get excited about, then drop everything that’s unrelated to that and concentrate on doing it ridiculously well. Only then will people really know what Microsoft represents versus Apple or Google, or anyone else, and know whether they like that or not. Inertia can only take you so far before you need some more momentum, and that requires direction – which implies a specific direction, not in all general directions at once.