Few technology companies are as resented and criticised as Microsoft, yet most of us depend on its products for one reason or another.
Part of the reason is that every time a major new application or format arrives, Bill Gates’ firm gets in on the action. When Netscape became the most popular way to browse the web in 1995, Microsoft launched Internet Explorer. When PDAs and smartphones emerged as realistic business tools for use on the move, Microsoft launched Windows Mobile. Shortly after that, Windows Media Center attempted to take control of the living room too.
Although not all the products Microsoft has released have been a success, all appear to have been developed with one thing in mind – domination. Microsoft was determined to be at the centre of every new market, and traditional products such as Windows and Office were so ingrained into the consumer consciousness that many would never think to try an alternative. And Microsoft refused to relinquish any control to potential competitors. In practice, that meant tenaciously guarding its protocols and the application programming interfaces (APIs) that would allow other products to work seamlessly with its software, while demanding that the rest of the industry play along with its proprietary products.
In February, all that changed. After years of antitrust woes and scuffles with the open-source community, Microsoft pledged to share details of its software with open-source developers to boost interoperability with other products. This is great news. The release of APIs for Word, Excel and PowerPoint will allow developers to plug in additional document formats, enabling users to set these formats as their default for saving documents.
Not many consumers will get excited about this, but the move could go some way to rid Microsoft of its reputation as a bully that knocks aside competitors and cares about market domination more than the convenience of its customers.
From Google to Facebook, openness has been the foundation for the growth of some of the world’s most popular web services. Yet it’s something that has been rejected by Microsoft – until now. The firm’s move to embrace open standards and open source clearly wasn’t made out of charity, and CEO Steve Ballmer said it could be years before customers notice the effects of the announcement. But could this be the dawn of a new Microsoft?
While business readers and hardcore techies consider Microsoft’s open API move to be one of the biggest IT stories for years, the reverberations are unlikely to have reached the average computer user. Most people’s opinion of Microsoft starts and ends with Windows and it’s the launch of Vista Service Pack 1 (SP1) and XP SP3 that’s grabbing PC users’ attention this month.
A firm release date for XP3 hadn’t been announced at the time of press. However, we received a copy of the near-final code for Vista SP1 in February and the final version could be widely available by the time you read this.
Many people believe the release of SP1 signals that the latest version of Windows is ready for adoption, with all early bugs and incompatibilities ironed out. Vista has been available for more than a year now and many people still have the knives out for the operating system. That’s unlikely to change with a simple service pack, but it remains a worthy download.