What Microsoft’s IE and North Korea Have in Common

Not sure why, but here lately I keep seeing opportunities that Microsoft is squandering.  The latest one:  Internet Explorer.

Why?  Recently, we all witnessed a massive advertising blitz on TV and the web for IE9.  To me it seemed wasteful.  I mean who was Microsoft really marketing to?  The only people that they were trying to convert were EXISTING users of Windows!  Think about it, Internet Explorer at one point had a nearly 80% market share.  Today, often the first thing I do when getting a fresh Windows VM up and running is to install Google Chrome and Firefox.  I don’t even launch IE (no matter what version) unless I absolutely have to for some bizarro ms-centric client code support issue.

The reason?  Internet Explorer is only supported on one platform:  Windows.  In effect, Microsoft has made their browser market share isolated much like North Korea has made itself on the international stage.

Even Apple makes Windows versions of Safari (actually, this appears to be changing).  So, why would Microsoft chose to isolate the primary application delivery mechanism (browser) to only their OS?  Let’s not get distracted by the current mobile apps stratified marketplace.  IOS and Android do control the “isolated mobile apps” marketplace as I call them, but there is a clear desire by many including Facebook to make the move to native HTML 5.x apps on mobile devices as quickly as on par capabilities arise (getting there).  I think this “detour” with isolated mobile apps we are all on will eventually turn the power back to the browser again on mobile devices.  To be sure, potentially strong competitor Mozilla, has a mobile OS making heavy use of HTML 5.  Google has already realized that the browser can be the OS and has based their Chrome OS notebooks on this strategy.

Right now, in terms of speed and recoverability Google’s Chrome is a superior browser and it runs on Windows, OSX, and Linux platforms.  Microsoft should take notes and effectively become a full faith partner in the multi-platform community, much like a respected nation in the UN.  Microsoft should immediately develop an open source version of Internet Explorer with full standards support.  To their credit IE9 has come a long way toward supporting open web standards from the days of IE6.  But they need to do more if they wish to compete and be relevant in the coming open browser world.  They need IE to run on OSX, Linux, IOS, and Android as fast as possible.  However, that will not be enough.  They need to have the recoverability from javascript issues through tab/process isolation like Chrome does and they need to add features faster than Google and Firefox can (like robust syncing bookmarks).  By doing these things, Microsoft can start to gain the respect of the open web community and gain traction.  For now, I am happy using Chrome and Firefox.  Redmond, you better wake up and get to work.  Open source IE and get it running on multiple platforms.

Microsoft’s Most Valuable Asset

Windows 8 was just released and so was the Surface tablet.  While this is a milestone for folks in Redmond, I couldn’t care less.  In fact, many engineers and programmers I have spoken to feel the same.  In many cases, people I work with are JUST NOW upgrading their virtual machines to Windows 7.  Notice I said virtual machines.  In fact, so many people I work with don’t use Windows as their host OS.  They just use it as a guest.  More and more people have tried Mac or Linux as the host.  But that is a side topic.  Let me get back to the main point here.

Microsoft is under assault from the marketplace.  Fewer new Windows PCs are popping up every 2 years since the Apple juggernaut started gaining momentum and people started getting work done  on operating systems that were non-Windows.  From a capitalism perspective, the shift in power is probably healthy.  Back in 2001, Microsoft had such a dominant position in the computing sphere they were under constant anti-trust investigations and derision by the blogosphere.  Today, the landscape is changing dramatically with tablets, and cloud computing.  As people’s exposure to apps that were not from a Windows platform happend more, they became more comfortable with alternative computing tools.  This change in mindset has predominantly been in the home market, but has trickled gradually into the corporate market also.

While I could talk about the operating system and tablet market ad nauseum, this was not the topic on top of my mind.  I have already moved beyond operating systems, compute hardware, and apps as an analysis of the impact Microsoft makes on my life.  What I want to point out what I think is perhaps the single most valuable thing Microsoft owns and sells today.  Nope, it is not Exchange server (which is actually a decent full-featured mail server platform).  Nope it is not Office.  The single most valuable product that Microsoft owns is Active Directory.  Yes, I said it Active Directory.

Why?  Because after the fail of Novell, the only relevant, full featured alternative for the corporate marketplace is AD.  When Novell was king, NDS was everywhere.  In fact, I spent much of my career connecting devices to an NDS X500 directory.  But Novell pissed so many people off with that nasty Novell client that they started to lose market share to the then burgeoning growth of Windows NT.  Eventually, Microsoft had to compete and release Active Directory.  While AD has never been as fully featured as NDS was, it was good enough.  Good enough that most IT departments said they did not want the pain of managing 2 Directory logins and trees.  So, they ditched NDS and embraced AD.

In fact, today, one of the main reasons corporate IT still predominantly have Windows clients and some installed base of Windows servers is because they like and need Active Directory to maintain thousands of users and groups.  To date, I have not been satisfied that there is a credible alternative to AD for user account management.  I have tried and use Sun LDAP, which is now Oracle LDAP.  I am not really impressed with that product and Oracle’s stewardship of great Sun open source initiatives is lackluster at best.  The fact is, Microsoft Active Directory is the glue that holds many IT departments together.

I make this point to hopefully draw Microsoft’s attention to an opportunity for them to keep a hold to this market and improve their standing in the community, or to excite some eager startup.  Microsoft needs to make it super easy to connect Linux and Unix machines to AD with FULL features.  I say that Windows Services for UNIX is not enough.  Further, I think Microsoft should license AD to work on Linux servers with full features.  They should do this with all the gusto of a market that they see as strategic.  They are wasting incredible amounts of money on IE advertising, Bing and other online properties and could have fully funded all the development costs to do this work.  So, Microsoft:  Wake up and secure this market before someone makes a better, open-source AD and then there is one less reason to keep you in the data center.