Two decades ago, Steve Ballmer proudly showed his mother a copy of Windows 98, the new operating system that featured a “start” button so prominent that Microsoft bought the Stones “Start Me Up” for the launch. When Ballmer’s mother asked him how to shut the program down however, Ballmer could have sung “you make a grown man cry” as he confessed that to stop Windows, you press the start button.
Microsoft never understands the deep loathing that it inspires in those forced to use it. Its software is frequently ugly, as Steve Jobs memorably put it, “not in a shallow way, but in a deep way”. It is badly architected, contains embarrassing UI goofs, and assumes that users will adapt to it — which we of course do, by the tens of millions.
Silicon Valley has gone from fearing Microsoft as a monopolists to ignoring it as a zombie. Microsoft famously was so preoccupied with its Windows monopoly that it missed the rise of the Internet. It then missed mobile. Ballmer, suddenly awakened, frantically purchased Nokia, evidently on the theory that two stones sink slower than one. He launched Windows mobile in the charming hope that what iOS and Android developers, handset makers, and users really needed was a third mobile platform. With Bill Gates focused on philanthropy ever since the stock peaked and Ballmer treated as the clown prince of software, many technologists forgot about Microsoft for the last decade.
Which is why recent mobile software from Microsoft is so interesting. Although its new CEO cannot revive a dead man to the extent that “Start Me Up” suggests, Microsoft is nonetheless showing signs of life. The iOS version of Office is not only excellent, it is free. MS will require a subscription only for devices with screens over 10″, so laptops and pro tablets will pay, but phones and normal tablets are free. And since a family of 5 licenses is only $9.99/month, MS is setting prices at much more realistic levels.
On iOS, Office is now easier to use and better integrated with cloud storage than Apple’s own Pages, Keynote, and Numbers. It has replaced native Apple applications on my phone and tablet. Outlook, which releases a trial 2016 version for OSX and Windows tomorrow, will hopefully move some of its mobile innovations to the desktop.
As Microsoft comes to life, Google is suddenly facing a real threat. Chrome, Google’s browser, owns about a two-thirds of all desktop traffic because it is free, stable, and fast. And because Internet Explorer, which Microsoft gives away, was for many years plain goofy.
But desktop browsing is yesterday’s market; today’s game is mobile. We are approaching a time when every human on the planet will have a smartphone and billions of dollars will be made and lost in services and ads. Which is why a small feature of iOS 9, support for robust ad blockers, is a big deal. In my experience, Safari with ad-blocking enabled transforms the mobile web from endlessly irritating to quite usable.
Apple did not enable ad blocking simply because they thought consumers would like it better — although we do. They did it to stick a knife in the ribs of Google’s only real source of revenue. They appreciate that Google will not happily enable ad blockers in Chrome. Indeed, Google has responded by disabling popular extensions that block ads, planning new subscription services for YouTube, and launching Google Contributor, which enables users to pay Google $2, $5, or $10 monthly depending on how much ad-blocking you want.
Will this work? Will anyone use Chrome if it cannot block ads? Will Apple enable deep ad-blocking in Safari and host free user-generated videos to put a bullet in YouTube? Yeah, they will. I doubt that Apple will kill Google — but I have no doubt that they will try and I have serious doubts that this week’s campaign of moral pleading launched by Google will do anything but make them look pathetic.
A few years ago, Oracle CEO Larry Ellison called Google a “one trick pony”, adding “but it’s a hell of a trick”. With Apple now exposing Google to a bit of full-contact capitalism, we will soon know how many new tricks Google can learn.