Something Happened: Where's Microsoft?


As you may have heard, last week there was a bit of kerfuffle over Google's Buzz and its implications for privacy. And Google has responded:

We've heard your feedback loud and clear, and since we launched Google Buzz four days ago, we've been working around the clock to address the concerns you've raised. Today, we wanted to let you know about a number of changes we'll be making over the next few days based on all the feedback we've received.

First, auto-following. With Google Buzz, we wanted to make the getting started experience as quick and easy as possible, so that you wouldn't have to manually peck out your social network from scratch. However, many people just wanted to check out Buzz and see if it would be useful to them, and were not happy that they were already set up to follow people. This created a great deal of concern and led people to think that Buzz had automatically displayed the people they were following to the world before they created a profile.

On Thursday, after hearing that people thought the checkbox for choosing not to display this information publicly was too hard to find, we made this option more prominent. But that was clearly not enough. So starting this week, instead of an auto-follow model in which Buzz automatically sets you up to follow the people you email and chat with most, we're moving to an auto-suggest model. You won't be set up to follow anyone until you have reviewed the suggestions and clicked "Follow selected people and start using Buzz."

What's interesting is that (a) Google could overlook something so obvious and so fundamental and that (b) it responded not once but twice in a matter of days. That's really living on Internet time, and shows how things have changed from the “old days” - a few years ago, say – when errors were baked into software and would have taken months to sort out.

But that wasn't the only thing to happen last week. Rather hidden by the excitement over Buzz was another announcement from Google:

We're planning to build and test ultra high-speed broadband networks in a small number of trial locations across the United States. We'll deliver Internet speeds more than 100 times faster than what most Americans have access to today with 1 gigabit per second, fiber-to-the-home connections. We plan to offer service at a competitive price to at least 50,000 and potentially up to 500,000 people.

Our goal is to experiment with new ways to help make Internet access better and faster for everyone. Here are some specific things that we have in mind:

Next generation apps: We want to see what developers and users can do with ultra high-speeds, whether it's creating new bandwidth-intensive "killer apps" and services, or other uses we can't yet imagine.

New deployment techniques: We'll test new ways to build fiber networks, and to help inform and support deployments elsewhere, we'll share key lessons learned with the world.

Openness and choice: We'll operate an "open access" network, giving users the choice of multiple service providers. And consistent with our past advocacy, we'll manage our network in an open, non-discriminatory and transparent way.

Google began, you will recall, as a research project into search: rolling out up to half a million 1 gigabit/second fibre optic connections to end users as an experimental project indicates just how far Google has evolved. Equally dramatic in that respect has been its move into the mobile world with Android. Again, the connection with search may not be immediately clear, but is all to do with trying to predict the future by inventing it: Google wants to make sure that whatever happens in terms of how the Internet develops, it is well placed to thrive there, be it on super-fast gigabit/second fibre, or ubiquitous computing devices that slip into your pocket.

Google isn't the only company that is constantly re-inventing itself. Perhaps the most dramatic example is Apple, which was all but written off a few years back. But instead of disappearing, it has colonised the profitable niche of top-end computing systems, particularly portable ones, and gone on to re-shape not just itself, but two entire markets.

The first was digital music, which was rather languishing under the repeated attacks of the purblind recording industry, which thought it could maintain its analogue-world role as an indispensable intermediary between artists and audience. Using his seemingly hypnotic powers, Steve Jobs managed to persuade the recording industry to accept his iTunes + iPod offering, and digital music took off as never before among the general population.

Just as significant was Jobs' decision to enter the world of mobile phones. The iPhone re-defined what a modern smartphone should be, and accelerated the increasing convergence of computers and telephony. Many believe that with its iPad Apple stands poised to bring into being yet another major market sector, and to transform digital publishing just as completely as it has already affected digital music.

Whatever you think of these recent happenings, one thing is clear: not a single one of the most exciting events in computing – Buzz, gigabit/second fibre networking, iPad, Android and the rest – has come from Microsoft. Indeed, the way in which Google and Apple have completely drowned out any news from that company for months on end is without precedent and, I believe, a major watershed.

For we are witnessing the end of Microsoft's reign as king of computing – not with a bang, but a whimper. Of course, Microsoft will not disappear – I fully expect it will still be hanging on for decades, generating nice dividends for its shareholders – but it will simply be irrelevant in all the key areas.

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