Plan B

In the past, you could measure Microsoft’s success by others’ weakness. This time it’s different. Google rolls out a five-pronged disruption to the smart phone, the Visual Studio developer base, social media, offline storage, and Webtone pricing – and it bolsters Ray Ozzie’s hand. With a month to go, Bill Gates’ “transition” from 80-20 to 20-80 has Redmond shaking.

The old games just aren’t working. Windows chief Steve Sinofsky spends a ridiculous half hour fending off CNet’s Ina Fried with zero information on Windows 7 and way too much repetition of the purpose of the interview: to discuss the process by which information will be given out in the future. We get it, Steve. You’re not telling the media anything except the ground rules for what you’re not telling the media. Thanks for the heads up.

In classic media terms, this is a Microsoft death spiral story. Vista sucks, Apple market share grows, the PC/Mac ads win awards. iPhone 2 approaches, Android looks cool and competitive, the AT&T WiFi takedown looks like it’s spreading to the Blackberry, the N95, and maybe, just maybe, the other carriers. The Google Web Toolkit harnesses Java developers, the Eclipse dev environment, a growing number of APIs and Javascript libraries hosted on Google servers, and Amazon-slashing AppEngine pricing. Developers, developers, developers.

But each chink in the old Microsoft armor cuts two ways – as a minor glitch in the continuing revenue power of the IT-controlled Windows and Office upgrade path, and a strategic boost for Ozzie and his Mesh strategy. When you hear the open crowd attack the notion of trusting Microsoft to route our data a la Hailstorm and its Passport albatross, you’re also hearing the first stages in acceptance of the new Microsoft mantra.

Mesh abstracts devices and operating systems into objects that can be coordinated and orchestrated to deliver the appearance of a single or composite device. That’s the guiding principle behind virtualization, which permits applications to address these virtual devices as single entities while spreading computational load across machines, domains, and business processes. When you hear people both outside and inside attack Mesh as a synchronization technology, you are hearing political spin about a strategy that has not yet been fully implemented or acknowledged.

From a technical perspective, the largest chunk left to be finished is affinity grouping – taking the atomized identity and social metadata and organizing micro-communities that can act as power brokers in the new information model Mesh creates. From a political perspective, these groups will quickly produce revenue in much higher proportion to the broader less targeted audiences of existing clouds. As that power is increasingly parceled out via Silverlight to the enterprise crowd, Windows and Office become services to be maintained much in the same way that IBM uses open source via its Global Services group.

Key to the transition is the interactive two-way nature of the communication services of the Mesh and Google platforms. Google collects behavioral data from Gmail, Apps, and search, but increasingly the roundtrip between Gchat and Google Reader is producing the high value signals (gestures) that fuel affinity group formation and targeted feedback loops. Mesh atomizes the Google, Facebook, and other social constructs into virtual devices that can be combined from the ground up to attack viral opportunities as they emerge.

If that sounds like Twitter, that’s because Mesh is Twitter’s Plan B. In recent weeks, we’ve seen Twitter quickly come to terms with the underlying problem of their viral success, and particular the unique but transcendent power of swarm characteristics that the (mis)use of the service has created. The very real time XMPP stream that proves irresistible to Twitter power users and its “track” conversation enabler are at the heart of what Ray Ozzie and his team discovered when they first began testing Groove . Mesh leverages that emergent behavior as the central construct of a virtual device router.

The conversation with Twitter and its satellites FriendFeed (listen to the recent Gillmor Gang with the FriendFeed founders), Twhirl, and to some degree Facebook, in recent weeks has really been about Twitter’s sole asset: its people. It’s taken a few punches to the middle to soften things up enough to encourage more transparency on Twitter’s part, but now that the dialogue appears engaged via the media, the real work needs to begin in earnest with Twitter’s owners in the Track cloud. Because Track requires the availability in real time of a dynamic swarm of affinity members, that service makes maximum use of the system, which still can’t deliver it.

Twitter’s problem, then, is to convince its users that they will restore that feature. Those that reject that as important can remain secure knowing virtually every Twitter clone can provide the basic commoditized services they require. In other words, they don’t need Twitter, just Twitter-like functionality. Those who are addicted to Track and real time services know otherwise. In aggregate, as affinity groups, they derive much greater yield from their behavior and micro-cast contract offerings than the rest of the marketplace – better resolution of information streams, increased economic clout, and the Darwinian favoritism of swarm resolution over less dynamic and more static problem solving.

Plan B is not for Twitter, or even Microsoft; it’s for us to do. If Twitter execs respond directly to the marketplace with straight talk, we’ll likely stay with them. But it is incumbent upon us to begin Plan B now, by beginning the process of harvesting our Track/Follow clouds and readying them for the day when other more robust services arrive. Starting now, we use Twitter behavior that reinforces core constructs (140 characters, TinyUrl pointers, Track, asynchronous follow) while discouraging features such as @replies which encourage non-real time use.

Syntax that records conversational techniques needs to be baked out across our affinity groups, for example dropping not just the @ sign but the Twitter name as well after the first citation, only reading upon a context switch. With XMPP and Track down, we have no way to archive via Gmail, but Summize and FriendFeed offer workarounds. If FriendFeed quickly implements XMPP as we discussed on Friday’s Gillmor Gang (you decide whether that will happen) we will have some redundancy on our side sooner than later. Plan B makes sense for more than just tactical Is Twitter Up reasons, but also because Google has similar services available. Adapting and morphing the Gmail/Gchat/Greader tool set to emulate the core Track model is doable, but requires some incentive for the company to move up the stack.

Google’s recent efforts suggest they understand the reality here, that this effort will not be about damaging Microsoft but closing the sale with their users to allow them legitimate trustworthy access to all the data they are collecting. On Microsoft’s side, Twitter needs to end the rivalry between Exchange and SQL Server on the delivery side, and (to be blunt about it) put Office and Windows in their place down the stack. And every time Google announces another disruptive chapter in their creation of the collaborative social network, the champagne flows in Ozzie’s group. Welcome to Plan B.