Rounding Errors

The one thing that’s unclear is what’s the economic play for anybody else competing with us at the browser level. Is this all about kind of controlling the search box or is it about something else?

That’s Steve Ballmer, quoted in a long, interesting piece on TechCrunch. He also describes Google Chrome and Safari as “rounding errors” (apparently, webkit’s domination of the mobile web — essentially Mobile Windows is the only non-webkit platform — is insignificant). Of course, it’s a self-serving and disingenuous question. Why does Microsoft care about the browser? What’s their economic play?

Then there’s this exchange:

Arrington: … How do you feel about that with today’s world where Google is moving forward with Chrome OS and Chome Browser being merged?

Ballmer: I have no clue. I mean, how do I say this correctly? I don’t know what Google is doing. I’ll say that it is certainly clear that in the year 2009, the notion of operating systems being independent of internet access and internet ability to render important things in the internet is kind of not a sensible concept. And in every legal dispute we’ve been in, eventually, people agree with that. You know, we had to agree with some rules around that with the DOJ as part of the consent decree. We’re trying to agree on a new set of rules around that with the European commission, but I think we’re well past the point where people really question that it needs to happen. The question is for somebody who’s got our market share, on what terms does it happen?

You know, Google is talking about building an operating system with the name of its browser. Nobody should be confused. The browser they think of is the operating system and the question is you know sort of like Marc Andreesen in the late ’90s is back at work at Google. If you remember, he said something like, Windows will just be a poorly debugged set of device drivers running Netscape.

Is Ballmer really this clueless? Of course not. It’s completely obvious what Google is doing — they’re trying to make Microsoft into an irrelevant commodity that adds no value, but their approach is both smarter and less arrogant than Netscape’s. They’re simultaneously depriving Microsoft of its desired areas for expansion (is anyone excited about the next Mobile Windows phone? Web Office?) and using kung fu to turn Microsoft’s own strengths (e.g. Internet Explorer market dominance) against it. Imagine if Chrome Frame is able to provide a level playing field for web app deployment within Microsoft’s own hopelessly non-flat IE playing field? Ouch!

Microsoft is still trying to get somewhere with Silverlight and Expression Studio. How’s that going? 35% of PCs run Silverlight? I’m running Silverlight just to play Netflix videos. How much did Microsoft pay Netflix to get it to use Silverlight?

(In case you’ve any doubt that Mike Arrington is essentially a Microsoft PR conduit, check out the transcript: Ballmer: rant rant rant; Arrington: yeah; Ballmer: rant rant rant; Arrington: uhuh. Now that’s hard-hitting tech journalism.)

I mean, we’re gaining share. Apple is expensive. And in tough economic environment, people get it. Their model is, by definition, expensive. And we’ve actually held or maybe even gained just a tiny bit of share relative to the Mac in the last 12 months. And it’s not really Snow Leopard. It’s really Windows PCs versus Mac.

This only holds water if you count Netbooks as being PCs, and refuse to count iPod Touches or iPhones as Macs — since the iPod Touch serves much the same purpose as a Netbook — i.e. a tiny computer that kind of sucks as a computer but lets you surf the web and do email, and doesn’t cost much. There’s a big difference of course — Apple makes healthy margins on the iPod Touch.

Windows 7 definitely looks like a huge improvement over Windows Vista, and some of its new interface enhancements (e.g. automatically sizing Windows to fit half the screen (exactly) if you drag them to the right place seem like worthwhile innovations (if Microsoft has gotten the details right — for once). But it looks like a bit of a wash performance-wise (it’s not so much “faster than XP” as “not as much slower than XP as Vista was”). And PC World’s list of ten things that still need fixing is a lot more depressing than its ten best features list is exciting.