Navigating the Web

By Nicholas Kolakowski  |  Posted 2010-06-06

Microsoft's Week Involved Ballmer Mea Culpa, Google Dump

Microsoft's week climaxed with CEO Steve Ballmer taking the stage at the D8 conference June 3 to admit that the company had made certain crucial mistakes in the smartphone space. At the same time, Ballmer also suggested that Microsoft was well-positioned to take advantage of the mobile market, along with the cloud and tablet spaces-a note of public optimism at a time when the company finds itself facing strong competitors such as Google and Apple.

Accompanied by Microsoft Chief Software Architect Ray Ozzie, Ballmer explained to The Wall Street Journal's Walt Mossberg that a generalized movement toward the cloud did not threaten Microsoft, whose power base is consolidated on the traditional desktop.

"There's nothing bad for us in the trend. It's all good," Ballmer insisted, according to a rough blow-by-blow of the conversation posted on the All Things Digital Website. "But it's a transition and as such it's a period of tumult. So we need to be smarter and more vigilant. But not because we're moving from a world that's fundamentally good for us to a world that's not. We're moving [from] a world that's good for us to a world that's potentially even more good for us."

Ballmer also defended the traditional PC, despite the rise of mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets.

"The real question is, -What is a PC?'" Ballmer asked the audience. "Nothing that's done on a PC today will get less relevant tomorrow. I think there will exist a general-purpose device that does anything you want because [some] people don't want multiple devices or can't afford them."

However, Ray Ozzie suggested that the era of multiple device form factors is, indeed, upon us. "I think there's going to be success in a number of form factors-in the pad form factor, in the tablet mode," Ozzie said. "I think there will be appliancelike screens that will be in our living rooms. ... There are certain fundamental differences in productivity in consumption and creation experiences, though. Both must exist on these devices."

But Ballmer also acknowledged that Microsoft had lost substantial ground to Apple, Google and other competitors in the smartphone space.

"We were ahead of the game, and now we find ourselves No. 5 in the market," Ballmer said. "We missed a whole cycle. I've been quite public about the fact that I've made some changes in leadership around our Windows Phone software. We had to do a little cleanup."

Nonetheless, he insisted that the dynamic nature of mobile could translate into an opening for Microsoft; presumably once it launched Windows Phone 7, the total revamp of its smartphone operating-system franchise, later this year.

"We're driving forward in the phone business," Ballmer added. "The market leaders here have shifted twice in the past few years ... so we've got to have real ideas and we've got to execute consistently."

Navigating the Web


The Web-and the means of navigating it-also remained a focus for Microsoft this week. Internet Explorer 6 and 7 continued to see their portion of the U.S. browser market decline in May, according to new data from analytics company StatCounter, even as Internet Explorer 8 continued to gain traction. Although both IE 6 and 7 were used by far greater percentages a year ago, both browser versions have seen their shares decline precipitously thanks to a combination of IE 8 and rival browsers such as Google Chrome and Mozilla's Firefox.

In May 2010, IE 6 claimed 4.47 percent of the browser market, trailing IE 7 with 16.64 percent and IE 8 with 30.49 percent. Contrast that to May 2009, when IE 6 occupied around 11.47 percent of the market, IE 7 held 43.45 percent, and IE 8 trailed with 8.5 percent.

A number of browser competitors have seen their own shares rise during this yearlong period, including Firefox 3.6, which has risen to 19.85 percent market share. According to StatCounter, Google Chrome 4.0 occupies around 6.53 percent of the market, while Safari 4.0 owns 8.46 percent.

Microsoft claims that the declines in IE 6 and IE 7 are welcome.

"The fall of both these versions was expected, and in fact we wish to accelerate," Ryan Gavin, senior director of Internet Explorer, said in a June 1 statement. "Internet Explorer 8 is encouraging more and more people to move off of Internet Explorer 6 onto a modern browser-meaning developers can spend more time innovating and less time replicating workarounds."

For some Websites, IE 8 needs a feature called Compatibility View to render all elements properly; Microsoft has been working to reduce the list of Websites that require that feature. As of March, only around 19 percent of high-traffic Websites rendered in IE 8 standards, a number the company seemed highly intent on increasing.

Despite Microsoft's desire to move its browser users away from IE 6, the company has also pledged to support the browser until April 2014, when it reaches a preordained phase-out point.

"We committed to supporting the IE included with Windows for the lifespan of the product," Dean Hachamovitch, a member of Microsoft's Internet Explorer team, wrote in an Aug. 10 post on Microsoft's official Internet Explorer blog, after a summer in which some Websites publicly stated they would stop supporting IE 6. "As engineers, we want people to upgrade to the latest version. We make it easy as possible for them to upgrade. Ultimately, the choice to upgrade belongs to the person responsible for the PC."

While Microsoft could potentially take some cheer in IE 8's market share-despite the increasingly robust presence of its competitors in the space-Internet Explorer also raised the prospect of a public relations headache this week: Google resurrected its January security breach, which took advantage of an IE vulnerability to steal some of the search-engine giant's intellectual property, as a pretext for reportedly transitioning its employees away from Windows-based systems.

While Google itself seemed reluctant to confirm the reports, Microsoft decided to confront the issue in a more head-on manner.

"There's been some coverage overnight about the security of Windows and whether or not one particular company is reducing its use of Windows," Brandon LeBlanc, a spokesperson for Microsoft, wrote June 1 on the official Windows blog. "When it comes to security, even hackers admit we're doing a better job making our products more secure than anyone else. And it's not just the hackers; third-party influentials and industry leaders like Cisco tell us regularly that our focus and investment [continue] to surpass others."

The possibility exists that Google's alleged Windows ban comes not from security concerns but out of a need internally to clear the way for its Chrome OS, a cloud-based operating system that will be released to the public later in 2010.

"I have to wonder how much of this is due to competitive drivers versus genuine desire to secure Google," IDC analyst Al Hilwa told eWEEK. "After all, Google has operating systems, browsers, tools and productivity software that [are] head-to-head competitive with Microsoft, and so this may make sense for them."

Given that competition between Microsoft and Google, executives for the latter may have seen their shift to Chrome OS as an ideal opportunity to fire a broadside at the main pillar of Microsoft's business.


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