Dear Microsoft

Steve Ballmer
1 Microsoft Way
Redmond, WA 98052-8300

Dear Mr. Ballmer:

I am concerned about Microsoft. The last decade has not been good to the company. Sure, it still owns the desktop operating system business, dominates the office suite and makes big money on servers and development environments. But there is something missing. To be honest with you, I think Microsoft has lost its way, it mojo so to speak. And I can tell because the developer community is no longer afraid of you.

Your business is assaulted from every direction. Linux has grabbed hold of IT departments. Google has become the thought leader on the web, destroying you on search and starting to challenge you in office suites. Open source is providing a bevy of development environments, all for free. Firefox is eating away at your dominant browser position. Apple has wrestled design and thought leadership away on mobile devices and laptops. Amazon is winning the race to be the web’s “operating system.” Nintendo outplayed you in game console systems.

Once upon a time, Microsoft was a visionary company. You took a concept like email and incorporated it as one piece in a grand vision to organize and manage personal information. That changed the game and wiped out Eudora, the market leader at the time. I think you can do the same kind of thing now, change the rules of the game and bring computing power to the masses, only this time on the web.

The strategy I am proposing here is perfect for Microsoft as it all relates to your existing businesses. Only this time, it’s on the web:

1. It’s about data. I am end-user and have data everywhere. I have it on cell phones used by everyone in my house and business, I have it on multiple computers, I have it on a personal server, I have it across the web. What I need is someone who knows how to extract all this information, put it in one secure central place so it can all be accessed on the web and on all the devices. Microsoft can do this. And it just so happens that you have a head start: you already have the technology to do this. Exchange works with all kinds of computers, servers and mobile devices. But what we need is not Exchange for IT pros but Exchange for the rest of us. I want to be able to enter an appointment on my BlackBerry and see it appear on our family’s web site calendar and my business calendar and on my business partner’s BlackBerry so she knows not to schedule that phone meeting then. And I want to buy a new song and have it appear on my wife’s laptop without having to think about it. And the same for pictures and video and every other piece of personal information. There’s plenty of money here. And that should make your shareholders happy.

2. It’s about developers. What was amazing about Windows is that it made operating systems useful for all of us, not just the nerds in the IT department. I don’t have to remember obscure keystrokes to make it work, it just works. This time it is not about end-users, though, but about people with ideas, whether they are developers or bloggers or just need to promote themselves. The web is still a bit like DOS. I have to know how to set up a server, databases, load balancing, run-time environments and such. It’s a real pain. And, of course, then I have to keep it running and make sure I don’t run out of server space or bandwidth or… I think you get the idea. I don’t really want to deal with this stuff. I want to create amazingly cool web apps. I want to share my ideas. I don’t want to be a systems administrator, as the current web provider’s require me to be. Microsoft could be the infrastucture for the world wide web, providing a platform for developers who wish to pay (think monthly fees) or don’t (think search placements).

3. It’s about business. It used to be that when you needed an application to run your business, you turned to Microsoft. But this is going to change as apps move online unless Microsoft moves too. Let’s face it, today this web-only approach by Google and others doesn’t work all that well. It’s slow and a little painful to use and I have to worry about working on my spreadsheets on the airplane. What they are really good at, though, is getting feedback on something as the web makes a great place for collaboration. You are uniquely positioned to offer online and offline versions of the products every business relies on. I know you risk cannibalizing your business, but for $50 a year you could charge for Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Outlook, giving users both an online account and the software to load locally on their Windows or Mac computer. Anything I do locally automatically syncs to the server and others — with permission of course — can review and make changes and share their thoughts, wiki or subversion-style, all of which gets synced back locally. Now, I never have to worry about being out-of-date on my software and you have taken a big headache out of my daily life: sharing and soliciting feedback happens automatically.

One thing Microsoft has been amazing about in the past is re-inventing itself. It did this with operating systems, dropping DOS line entry system for a Windows interface. It did this with browsers. This, of course, is a bigger transformation than what the Company has done before. But it’s time, before we in high-tech start thinking about Microsoft like the rest of the country thinks about General Motors.

I hope you will take my suggestions seriously. After all, the last thing we need now is only one behemoth, destroying innovation and taking advantage of small companies. With both you and Google at each others throats, fighting like Mothra and Godzilla over dominance of the web, we’ll all be a little better off.


Elia Freedman

Rating Mobile Platforms for Development

So I need to make a business decision about which platforms to develop for, and that decision almost always comes to how many potential customers versus the cost to develop and distribute for the platform. I’ve broken each down based on recent events.

Potential Customers

The first step is to see what the potential revenue is based on the number of people buying a platform and likely to buy one in the future. The numbers of unit sales are readily available. Of course, this doesn’t actually tell you the number of users since those who stick with a platform tend to buy into each subsequent generation of products. In the smartphone space, this number is easy since most users stick with their current device for the duration of their contract. Of course we never really know how many people are new and how many people are buying the next generation.

Given all this, it is just the baseline. If there aren’t enough units sold and those customers don’t seem to be the kinds of customers that would want to buy my products, then I’m not going to develop for it. The real decision point comes once the cost components are analyzed. How do I view the major platforms (from within North America)?

  1. Hot: Apple iPhone/iPod Touch, RIM BlackBerry
  2. Simmering: Microsoft Windows Mobile
  3. Cool: Nokia Symbian, Google Android

Surprised? Remember, I am looking at units sold and the kinds of users being attracted to the platforms (relative interest in my products). Symbian devices have not made much of a dent here in North America and Android is too new. An International discussion would be completely different. But I believe if I can’t make money in my home country then I can’t make it overseas, particularly given the added costs of product localization and foreign distribution. As for Microsoft, they always seem to be there but that’s it. People buy their products but no one seems to love them. It’s a real shame.


The next major decision point is distribution. Generally, I only care about distribution in terms of costs to reach customers. I don’t really see distribution as a means of getting to the customer — that’s what marketing is for. Instead, distribution is all about product delivery. How easy is it for people to find my products once they want to buy them? How easy is it to purchase, download and install? And how much is it going to cost me as the company to do it?

This is where the wheels have started to fall off the bus in the mobile business over the past 6 years. Costs have been through the roof (67% of product price in some instances) and it hasn’t eliminated any of my install and reinstall issues.

And then comes Apple. Charging 30% and eliminating all install and reinstall issues in the process, we finally have a channel of interest. On top of that, Apple is doing a ton to raise the interest and awareness of third-party applications, a huge added bonus.

And Apple started an avalanche: Google and now RIM have announced their own stores, and Microsoft is rumored to have one in the works. All have roughly the same terms (20-30% of retail price) and the same promise.

So how do the major platforms shake out?

  1. Hot: Apple, Google
  2. Simmering: RIM
  3. Cool: Nokia, Microsoft

Until those rumors play out for Microsoft and Nokia, they will stay on the backburner when it comes to distribution, at least. As for RIM, the devil is in the details. Some we know (20% cost to developers) but many more we don’t (how will partners be treated, will it be on the devices, will anyone care).


This is where mobile computing development gets really hard. Every platform takes its own custom development. Fine, they all are either C-based or Java-based, but every user interface is different. The costs to develop for a subsequent platform are staggering, particularly when the size of smartphone software development companies are taken into consideration.

I have been hearing a lot of noise in dev communities about Android lately. These old-time developers, who developed in C on Palm and Windows Mobile, are now faced with moving their applications to Java on RIM and Android. (iPhone and Nokia are C-based.) Even if all devices used only Java or C, it would still be a daunting task to redevelop the user interface layer of the application for every device.

The other big announcement in the previous weeks is RIM’s support for Google Gears. Google Gears allows a web site to be used even if there is no web connection. So as a developer, we can hypothetically write a web-based application and then run it locally (without an Internet connection) on supported platforms. With RIM’s announcement, that means that RIM, Android, Windows Mobile, Windows, Mac and Linux systems all support Google Gears now.

Hot, simmering and cool? I can’t rate them. Every platform takes custom development still. At some point, hypothetically, we could support iPhone native along with BlackBerry, Android, and Windows Mobile with Gears, but not today. Today, the other factors have to be considered first.


If I’m a developer today, I am looking very hard at iPhone (as we are). They have the distribution channel and unit sales to be exciting. If I came from the Palm world (as we did), I also have some code that can translate over. It’s still a custom development job, but at least not a complete one depending on how much back-end programming has to be done.

My next decision is harder: do I leverage my C code base and develop for Microsoft’s multiple variations of Windows Mobile or do I jump to the hotter platform with better distribution promise in RIM? And my answer to that one is: follow your customers.

Is Google Gears A Mobile Development Game-Changer?

Google Gears could be a major advancement for third-party, mobile developers.

RIM announced last week support for Google Gears on future devices, Windows Mobile devices already support it, and I’m sure Android devices are not far behind.

Why’s that such a big deal? Because the promise of writing once (for the web) and running everywhere is actually coming to fruition. And for developers, this is a big deal. One of the major cost factors in mobile software development is picking which platforms to write for. If we no longer have to make that decision and we can write for all platforms without having to re-write for all platforms, we will finally be freed to make a profit. What a novel idea!

On top of that, as I noted in my article regarding how other mobile companies can beat Apple, I spoke about how a company that enables web developers to write local applications easily for their device will have the inside track. Is someone at RIM listening? I hope so because Apple will be better for the competition.