The Other Steve, Microsoft’s Ballmer, just treated us to another paean to open systems. This was last week at the Churchill Club, a Silicon Valley schmoozing institution.  There, we meet, gossip, drink, dine and watch a never ending and never boring parade of industry figures submitting themselves to soft-ball interviews by local notables of suitable rank.  (Next week, it’ll be Nokia’s CEO, coincidence, just on the eve of launching a new touch-screen music smartphone. Olli-Pekka Kallasvuo will be grilled by Walt Mossberg, the Wall Street Journal’s gadgetmeister.)
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For Ballmer, the interviewer was Ann Winblad, a respected venture investor who once dated Bill Gates, co-founder of Hummer-Winblad, one of the best Valley firms. Her genuinely inspiring life story is here, not in the surprisingly sterile Wikipedia piece.  The edited text of Steve’s remarks can be found on Microsoft’s site and if you search for “Ballmer Churchill Club” on YouTube, you’ll see bits of the Q&A session, often the more interesting part of such event.
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One the themes Microsoft’s CEO harped on was open systems, not open source, he’s not crazy about that kind of openness. Also referred to as “choice”, it is Microsoft’s mantra: With us you have a choice of  manufacturers, processors, peripherals, software.  We’re so used to the PC we tend to forget its industry has achieved the most remarkable ascent to the top of economics and culture the world has ever seen.  In three short decades it has become a trillion dollar ecosystem worldwide with Microsoft alone featuring an enterprise value of about $220 billion and operating margins in the high 30 percents.  (We thought we’d never see anything like this again and we now have Google…)
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Ballmer correctly opposes Apple’s closed control of hardware, software (and distribution) layers of its computers to the more open PC model where manufacturers offer a choice of hardware and software components thus covering a wider range of configurations, applications and prices.  Still, there is little choice outside of Microsoft Office and, for manufacturers, a PC open to both Windows and Linux installed at the factory is still verboten.  Jesuits once used what they called Holy Effrontery in defending their faith (or their power).  Never mind the contradictions, the Microsoft PC model is alive and well.  Which leads Ballmer to extend its open/closed discourse to smartphones where both Windows Mobile and Google’s Android, a nod from Steve, incarnate open choice and Apple behaves in its usual closed ways.  True again.
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But…
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There is a tricky combination of reality and perception, one that resists Ballmer’s forceful (and often very intelligent) assertions. First, for more than five years now, Microsoft’s stock has been essentially flat, a little below $30 a share most of the time.  Then we have Google.  Some call it the next Microsoft, all see its dominance of the search and advertising markets as well as its leadership in Cloud Computing developments.  This can explain the flatlining stock: for investors, even if today’s numbers are very healthy, Microsoft is no longer the king with the attendant ability to “tax” the market, to translate dominance into ever-rising profit streams.
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And we have Vista.  Never before in Microsoft’s history have we seen customers balking at the new version, Vista, and downgrading back to the older one, Xp. Today, if the effect on Microsoft’s profits isn’t clear, the impact on its credibility is inescapable.  Most of Vista’s ills are attributed to driver problems.  In plainer English, drivers are software modules that graft the many different hardware choices onto the core of the operating system.  But don’t think simple graft on a tree, connecting hundreds of delicate synapses is more like it, with many surgeons, hardware manufacturers, operating simultaneously.  Operating systems, all of them, end up with layers upon layers of additions and corrections.  The extensions and patches are needed for new versions to stay compatible with past ones and also to fix old and new bugs.  They look like Babylonian archeological digs with strata of debris marking each generation.  What Ballmer won’t say is this: the open model adds choices and opportunities; the price is higher complexity, fragility.  For Windows, the cost/reward ratio isn’t as good as it used to be when Windows 95 succeeded Windows 3.11 thirteen years ago.
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But, wait, there is more!  For all the preaching of the open/choice Gospel, Microsoft actually uses the closed model as well. I’m a man of principles, tell me the ones that the market doesn’t like and I’ll change them.  Microsoft’s game console, the Xbox?  A closed system, just like Nintendo and Sony.  The first iterations of the company’s open music players platform won’t sell against the closed iPod?  Never mind, Microsoft’s Zune is now an Apple-like platform.  Microsoft bought Danger, a closed smartphone company.  For its hardware, the Sidekick?   For its non-Windows Mobile software platform?  To build a ZunePhone?
Microsoft’s clarity of mind is admirable: it does not confuse what to say and what to do. — JLG
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