Microsoft Knows the Consumer is Always Right

By putting customers first and DRM content owners second, Microsoft is moving toward success in its seamless collaborative computing initiative, says eWEEK's Steve Gillmor

The old saw is that Microsoft only gets things right on the second or third try. Only with Windows 3.0 did momentum begin to build for the transition from DOS to GUI. On the application side, remember Internet Explorer 1.0? I dont. It wasnt until IE 4 that I finally switched away from Netscape Navigator.

But the network has changed everything, including Microsofts product strategies. These days every Microsoft product has at least two lives—the one that points along the roadmap to overarching themes such as security and seamless computing (aka collaboration), and the one that positions the product in todays marketplace.

For years, Bill Gates has been both visionary and enforcer, explaining the road ahead while back-filling the reality behind. With Steve Ballmers ascendancy to CEO, Gates has been able to stay firmly embedded in the long view, while Ballmer juggles licensing models, lawsuits, and settlements to clear the path forward.

As the Sun/Microsoft deal suggests, Ballmer is having some significant success at solving seemingly intractable problems. But perhaps even more surprisingly, Gates is coming to grips with the need to ratchet down the volume on digital rights management. At the Windows Hardware Engineering Conference (WinHEC) 2004, Gates talked first about user experience requirements, and only then about content owner concerns.

"Will people think its advantageous to organize their music on many, many different devices?" Gates asked rhetorically. "Probably not. Probably theyll just want to do that on one device. And yet we dont want them restricted to that single device." Yes, Bill, you got that exactly right. I wouldnt mind having access to the directory from all my devices, but the content? Wherever I go, there the files are.

A bit later, he reverses the order but not the underlying message: "The Hollywood studios, as we move beyond DVD to that next level of resolution, theyre going to insist that theres a digital rights capability that allows them to protect their bits," Gates accurately predicted. "So standards like HDMI [High Definition Multimedia Interface] are coming into play, and making sure that those dont complicate the user scenarios so the user can move things between devices, understand the breadth of their rights and we keep it simple while making all of that content available."

Next page: Tackling the Home Center.