Back in the good old days, big software companies did big things. Little companies tiptoed around in the shadow of the platform makers, gaining enough speed to liftoff and attract enough attention to survive long enough to be acquired. Like the old movie studios of the 30′s and 40′s, the technology studios of the 80′s and 90′s built stars and played them off until the inevitable decline.
So it went with Microsoft, as the seeming invulnerability of Gates’ machine accelerated to the boundaries of global saturation. Though we tend to think of Google as the conqueror, the reality is that Microsoft has struggled most with itself, the victim not of decline but of lack of fuel — the very customers who created the megalith in the first place.
Everything changed with the Net. The platform wars, the browser wars, the widget wars — they’re all really battles in the grappling with the living, breathing, swarm that is the Web. Even the argument over whether Office is dead is bogus, a joke that became a conference that begat a series of endless reiterations of the first O’Reilly Peer-to-Peer conference known as Web 2.0. The stuff that went over the wire now goes over the air; the stuff that used to persist solely on the client now comes from G@d knows where in the Cloud.
I pick on the conferences because they are an easy target, whether large and self-important like the Web 2.0 Expo this past week in San Francisco or small and private smoke-filled rooms like the ones that may await us in Denver in August. An easy target when the guy who champions dataportability.org is nowhere to be seen on the panels of numerous sessions on dataportability, the legitimacy of standards baked in the dark having the same dubious odor it had when Microsoft and IBM tried the same thing back in the Web Services Wars.
So we grow to expect little of big companies, entrenched publishers, and the various gatekeepers that fester at the margins of this unruly beast of the Net. Google grew so fast we bought the laughable notion they weren’t attacking Microsoft with freeware, but it only seemed like a big company play after the fact, and even today is laughed off by so-called “enterprise” seers as a toy, albeit a collaborative one that can’t be duplicated by the incumbent without triggering self-destruction.
Instead, we watch big company plays emerging from virtualized roots, the Amazon services, the social media clouds, the endless “little” company dance of instability, VC stupidity, and media carbonation of the Valley. This is the universe of the little Duchies, the Fenwicks where media storms roll down through the hills and tumble past with names like Twitter and Friendfeed and Twhirl.
I’ll call them microbigs, because the media treats them like they’re big companies with little to lose and everything to gain. The microbigs can seem transcendent like Facebook or possessing the lifetime of a gnat like a thousand forgotten startups or neverwases, but nowhere are the range of possible outcomes more encapsulated than Twitter.
Twitter is a Rorschach test of a microbig. I see it as the most important enterprise event of the MicroBig era; others see it as SocMedBS. We’re both right, of course, but put your head down on the tracks and you’ll hear the superliner approaching: Live Mesh. Just when we thought it was safe…. Are the big companies back? Is it time once again to assemble the open source wagons? To whom do we look for authority in fighting this battle?
First, is Microsoft a big company? Sure, but composed of monolithic special interests or a fast-moving collection of microbigs orchestrated by a self-healing mesh. One from Column A, the Office group, secure in revenue via the corporate channel but increasingly undercut by virality — or one from Column B, Silverlight, secure in cross-platform transparency with a 100 million client gift horse in NBC’s Olympic coverage on the horizon.
Both poles are curiously hamstrung, Office by its size and historical association with pre-Web lock-in, Silverlight by its perception as a virtual iPod with nothing to play or project. And there’s the media, similarly hamstrung by the notion that the only play here is to stick the two together and move Office to the Web. The problem: that’s not a microbig, it’s a regular old big company.
Then there’s the mesh. Looks bigco in purpose, staffed by the new guard at Microsoft, the best and brightest of Redmond and the seedlings that trace back to Groove and forward to the intersection with telecom and hardware. But try an interesting thought experiment as we did on The Gillmor Gang, and throw Mesh lead David Treadwell a series of microbig scenarios, and the answer comes up yes.
First, the Coke Classic questions: When’s the Mac version? Two months. What’s the difference between this and FolderShare. Never mind that who cares about FolderShare to begin with. What about Sharepoint? What about Groove? No wonder there’s even a little doubtthat Microsoft can get traction with this, what with channel conflict left and right with its own flailing Net-grappling product lines.
Finally, the real questions: Does Silverlight intersect with Mesh to produce the Net OS? Answer: Yes. Treadwell calls it orthogonal and complementary. MicroBig language. Can Mesh support Twitter streams orchestrated by identity mapping via affinities and abstracted to devices across OS, mobile, and corporate divides via Silverlight? Yes, but it can do so much more. Yes, but I didn’t ask about WIndows. OK, yes. When?
Big company play at MicroBig velocity. Yes, and rather than yes, but.
Gillmor: Is this service intended to compete against or enhance, which is a good part of the question, Google and Amazon Web Services?
Treadwell: This service is a different level than Amazon Web Services. Amazon Web Services does a great job of providing what we sometimes call utility computing resources– the ability to do mass scale storage, computation, etc. This service doesn’t have anything that operates at that level
Gillmor: Well it sits on top of services that operate at that level.
Treadwell: That’s exactly correct.
Gillmor: So can you wire the two up? Can you sit on top of Amazon services and use Mesh services to synchronize and orchestrate them?
Treadwell: It would certainly be possible for somebody to create a virtual device of a sort that uses Mesh’s open protocols to use S3 as one type of device. We don’t have that support today, but again, by virtue of the open protocol, somebody could create such a device.
Gardner: If someone decides they didn’t want, for some reason, their content to go out through this platform, wouldn’t it be fairly easy for them to block it?
Treadwell: They could simply choose not to map the folder. Is that what you mean?
Gardner: Not the end user necessarily, but perhaps the large organization that’s got content.
Treadwell: I see your point. That’s one of the things we know we have to do a good job with Mesh; that is, to be IT-friendly, and to give IT control on what kinds of data can and can’t be stored on this thing. In addition, one of the things that we expect to do longer-term is to allow IT departments to operate their own cloud storage mechanisms, such that data owned by that enterprise would only be stored on that enterprise’s devices and that enterprise’s servers. They would never go to Microsoft and they would have complete control of that data.
Yes? Yes. So what you’re saying is that Google is a microbig. Yes, did I say that? No, but I didn’t ask that either and the answer is still yes. Bottom line: Microsoft can’t gain and retain traction with Mesh unless the answers are yes.
Where we take this is even more interesting than whether it will be successful in Microsoft’s stated terms, that with a dominant client position on the desktop and a growing one in gaming, mobile, and corporate they will get the lion’s share of whatever becomes the coin of the realm (services.) Looking at Mesh as a data synchronization transport ignores its abilities to virtualize identity, permissions, information aggregation, realtime feedback loops, and other SocMedBS attributes that define the substructure of, for example, a Twitter-Mesh-Silverlight gateway to compete with GTalk/Twitter etc.
Imagine (not for long will it be ephemeral) an information bus that orchestrates the signaling of text, rich media, calendar, communications, transaction, and group location status under a social graph umbrella based in part on user-controlled behavior aggregation (gestures). Now imagine what Google needs to do to match this architecture and its overwhelming lead in connectors to existing hardware via Windows.
Google’s answer for now is no. There’s no need to attack Mesh directly, but rather continue to iterate on Officenomics while retaining its dominant leads in user credibility and advertiser cloud. But Microsoft can efficiently hybridize Google and other microbig services with the Mesh layer added, creating information bus fail-over to multiple streams (virtual devices) to insure enterprise levels of reliability and security.
Those who dismiss this SocMedBS should note that even without Mesh or a Silverlight installed base of sufficient size or a Twitter that can scale at the affinity level, we are already able to orchestrate multiple services at an adhoc level with tangible results. For example, Friday’s Gillmor Gang was carried simultaneously by a Ustream feed with live video from my studio in Daly City and graphics intermeshed with the conference call by Jerry Schuman in Los Angeles, a live chat with questions from a global audience, the concurrent Twitterstream, and members of the Gang including Robert Scoble by cell from Ansel Adams’ playground deep in Yosemite.
It’s another fine mesh we’re getting into. But we have to face the facts that choice is the only weapon we have for progress. Whether it’s someone trying to force a choice of who we are friends with, or guilt by association with other ideas and experiences, or any gatekeeping that isn’t in service of any of us, that is to be rejected and routed around until the obstruction clears. It’s time for us to act like the microbigs we can be, and, like Microsoft, just say yes.