Making Progress by Making Peace

Too many of us — and I include myself — are too willing to go to war and not willing enough to find harder, but often more successful, collaborative ways to solve problems. I often look at both the U.S. and Microsoft as similar entities in their respective spaces, and I’m often fascinated by how examples of good and bad judgment can be applied to both.

While the U.S. is currently locked on a war path, the next administration will likely focus on reversing this, and we might be able to look at the peace dividends that Microsoft is currently getting for similar U.S. benefits.

With this topic of war central to both those who use Microsoft products and those who live in the U.S. (and many of these folks are the same folks), I thought the topic of war in tech, or more accurately the foolishness of war in tech, would be interesting.

We’ll conclude with our product of the week, a service that digitizes and recycles your snail mail, increasing security and improving audit trails — potentially reducing related costs significantly — all while saving a lot of trees.

Microsoft’s Peace Dividend

I’m writing this at a Technology Summit at Microsoft targeted largely at open source advocates from mostly mixed shops. Initially we were discussing misperceptions surrounding Microsoft’s actual positions. One of the first had to do with Microsoft threatening to sue customers who used Linux and pointing out that this practice has been discontinued by policy two years previously. Some of the folks here seemed to doubt that Steve Ballmer, Microsoft’s CEO, actually read that policy.

Microsoft continued to point out the work it is doing with Linux, Samba, Mozilla, Apache, MySQL, PHP, Ruby, Python, Java and Eclipse (this is not an exhaustive list) with many of those in the audience actually working on some — but none all — of these efforts, which helped validate the efforts for the rest of us. The benefits to Microsoft appear to be a broader uses of Microsoft licensed technologies and better Microsoft products going forward.

My observation was that much of the competition stopped being Microsoft against open source and more between individual programmers in both camps. One of the things Microsoft learned was that many open source efforts were making more progress with vastly fewer people and resources than Microsoft. This is apparently forcing Microsoft to look critically at a huge number of their own structural problems and fix them.

On the open source side, many open source folks found they could actually make more money working with Microsoft and get things done vastly more quickly (particularly with regard to emulation and interoperability) if they cooperated rather than quarreled with Redmond.

The dividends of peace seem to be exceeding the spoils of war and showcase a changing Microsoft. But will this change drive major policy changes in the future Microsoft?

Xbox, Zune, Yahoo: Do They Make Sense in the New Microsoft?

If we look at each of these efforts that are pulling significant Microsoft resources, you see the results of conflict. Xbox was created to address the very real threat that the PlayStation would displace personal computers. The Zune was created to address the reality that Plays-For-Sure wasn’t working and Apple was going to become — OK, had become — unbeatable in the portable media market (and if you look at the iPhone it clearly has the potential to displace PCs, even Apple PCs). The US$45 billion Yahoo attempted acquisition is targeted at the threat that Google represents in terms of dominating advertising revenue.

The Xbox is seen as competitive to PC gaming and is one of the things the hardware OEMs (who represent vastly more potential revenue to Microsoft) complain about. The CEO of Wild Tangent, who used to be the leading Xbox evangelists, spoke out about his recently. I wonder what an even stronger partnership with Sony would be worth strategically to Microsoft?

Zune, while arguably competitive with Apple in its current form, will likely ensure that if HP and Dell do MP3 players they won’t use Microsoft technology.

The real competition for the iPod will likely come from other products like Slacker, which more aggressively attempt to innovate around the iPod model.

But these new competitors to the iPod will increasingly not be based on Microsoft technology, largely thanks to Zune competitive risks. Apple’s support for Microsoft’s OOXML efforts and for Office for the Mac are likely more important strategically for the company and Zune probably hurts both efforts.

Were Zune to surge, I would expect Microsoft to get a call from Steve Jobs suggesting the firm pick which they want more, Apple’s support or more Zune market share. And Steve does actually pick up the phone in situations like this.

Yahoo is a $45B effort that is focused on the Google War and doesn’t appear to benefit any Microsoft partnership, including the Yahoo partnership. If this same level of investment was put into improving any of Microsoft’s partnerships, given the above, wouldn’t it provide a higher rate of return?

What a Peaceful Microsoft Means

Even going back to the beginning and one of Microsoft’s more famous wars, this appears true. Realize that the partnership with IBM created the company and even then was vastly more valuable than anything that came out of the fight.

This fight hurt significantly Microsoft’s ability to move timely and well into the server environment that has become incredibly valuable to the firm of late. Certainly IBM could have been a big help with Microsoft’s current OOXML efforts given it is currently opposing them.

I wonder how many efforts that came out of Microsoft’s combative period will be revisited soon and how many will require additional executive changes before someone in power suddenly looks across the company and applies the new thinking to them. I wouldn’t expect Zune or Xbox to be killed, but I would expect them to be spun out or radically altered to reflect this improved partnership thinking.

In the end, this generation of Microsoft employees is learning that collaboration is vastly more powerful, strategic and actually more fun than conflict in the long term. It is also much harder, and the folks driving this inside of the company are likely some of the true heroes inside Microsoft. Their success will likely have a lot to do with what Microsoft becomes in the future. I think we would all like a more collaborative and more responsive Microsoft; I’ll bet that even may include most of the folks traditionally at war with the company.

However, my true hope is the U.S. learns from Microsoft’s lesson and realizes that war has few long-term strategic economic benefits and that partnerships, while harder to do well, are far more lucrative and far less risky.

Product of the Week: Green Electronic Snail Mail

I just ran into a brand new service called Earth Class Mail. What this company does is take all your mail and turn whatever you want to keep into a digital file so it can be handled electronically and tracked. They are a U.S. Post Office Commercial Mail Receiving Agency and it works like this:

They receive all of your mail and scan it unopened front/back and send out a mail alert (kind of like an e-mail alert) with this image. You then decide if you want to read or discard the mail (think how fast you could go through junk snail mail). If the user wants to read or forward the mail, it is fully scanned and sent per the instructions (they’ll even scan magazines if you want, but probably will just send those through).

The paper mail is then recycled, and all of this is done under what is represented to be Department of Defense-quality security.

The service has more than 4,000 customers in 130 countries (many of them U.S. ex-pats) and are currently working to scale to their first enterprise customers. They evidently recycle 93 percent of the mail they receive.

I hate managing paper, and I’m a big supporter of recycling. Since this addresses both needs strongly and will get piles of paper out of my office, it is my product of the week.

Rob Enderle is a TechNewsWorld columnist and the principal analyst for the Enderle Group, a consultancy that focuses on personal technology products and trends.

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