In the recent series of "Get a Mac" ads from Apple, John Hodgman personifies the PC as a boring, gray-suited middle-management type, and few of us care strongly enough to protest. Many of us appreciate Microsoft products for their familiarity or utility, but no one ever really gets excited about them. At least, that was the case until a little over a year ago, when Microsoft began unveiling a series of flashy new products. Suddenly they were eliciting the kind of gasps that techies usually reserve for companies like Apple or Google.
On the hardware side, consider Surface, Microsoft's tabletop computing project. Imagine a multitouch display - like Apple's iPhone, but much bigger - set into the form factor of a coffee table. The result is a truly novel computing platform, as different from desktop machines and mobile devices as they are from each other. Multiple users can simultaneously manipulate photos, maps and music using just their fingertips. The device can also interact with objects placed on its surface, including bluetooth-enabled phones.
On the software side, Microsoft has been generating a lot of buzz with a pair of projects from its Live Labs division. Photosynth can stitch together snapshots to build a three-dimensional model of a place. Photos of popular tourist destinations - already available on the web in large numbers - could be scooped up and used to create photo collages that could be "walked" through as if they were virtual worlds.
Meanwhile, Seadragon aims to create an infinitely zoomable graphical user interface. Imagine your collection of photo files arranged as a set of thumbnails on your desktop. Instead of opening a photo by clicking, you could just zoom in to view the photo in full resolution. When you're done, zoom out, and keep zooming, until your entire collection of files becomes visible as if viewed from miles high.
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These forward-looking initiatives will take real risks in being brought to the marketplace, which makes it all the more amazing that they're being produced by Microsoft. The company has a well-earned reputation for waiting on the sidelines of an emerging market, letting smaller, nimbler companies absorb the risks of development, before hopping in and throwing its weight around to become a dominant player in the space.
Critics of the company refer to its "embrace-extend-extinguish" strategy: Microsoft adopts an established technology, produces a proprietary version that's only partially compatible with existing standards, and then leverages its near-monopoly on the desktop to establish its own version as the new, de facto standard. The result is that companies which previously dominated the market find themselves marginalized.
Novell, which produced the WordPerfect word processor in the mid-90s, claims that Microsoft's Office suite made use of undocumented features of Windows which allowed it to out-perform competing office products. WordPerfect, the industry-standard word processor of the DOS era, faded into obscurity as Microsoft Word ascended.
Netscape claimed in Microsoft's U.S. antitrust trial that the bundling of Internet Explorer with Windows amounted to unfair competition. Netscape's browser, released earlier and at one time the most popular, has gone the way of WordPerfect.
The products underlying Microsoft's other core businesses - Windows, Windows Mobile, MSN, the XBox - were late entries to the worlds of graphical operating systems, mobile operating systems, web portals and gaming consoles.
So how does one explain the two faces of Microsoft? With nearly 79,000 employees and a diverse product line, Microsoft is a galaxy of a corporation that can, at times, seem to lack a unified corporate voice. One thing is for certain: unless a project wins the support of the larger corporate culture, it will wither on the vine, regardless of the plaudits it receives from outsiders.
Consider the fate of Internet Explorer for Macintosh. When version 5 was released in 2000, it was widely praised as one of the best web browsers on any platform - the rare example of a Microsoft product for Macs that exceeded the Windows version. Then as now, the kind of people who usually take digs at Microsoft were giving the company a second look. But after the initial release, developers were diverted from the project, and the browser quickly began to lag behind the competition. Only minor updates and bug fixes followed until 2003, when Microsoft axed it.
The forces driving the new, radical innovation within Microsoft are swimming upstream against a culture deeply invested in the embrace-extend-extinguish strategy. It's too soon to tell whether we're seeing a new Microsoft or just a flash in the pan.