Oh, man! Your mum’s accountant has just bought your favourite nightclub. And the chubby, brown-suited dullard (as seen in Apple’s TV ads) is trying to dance!

Microsoft’s bid for Yahoo makes business sense, perhaps, but how do you combine such different organisations, culturally and technically? For as long as we’ve had PCs there have been two approaches to the technology: Microsoft’s and everyone else’s.

While everyone else developed coherent, modular engineering standards so everything could be interconnected, Microsoft’s strategy was, according to the US Department of Justice, “Embrace, extend and extinguish“. They’d base their products on the agreed standards, but extend them with their own proprietary capabilities. They’d make sure that many everyday tasks required those extensions, but because Microsoft had the dominant market position it’d look like everyone else’s products were broken. (Apple doesn’t count. Mac users exist in an independent dimension of blissful serenity, fuelled by their own smugness. They can interconnect with everyone, they just don’t want to.)

Truly innovative software is usually created by awesomely-intelligent individuals or small, focussed teams. Microsoft’s industrial-scale development process, with armies of cubicle droids, seemed incapable of producing anything other than bloated, overly-complicated and buggy software.

Nevertheless, a generation of businesses still writes reports in Microsoft Office illustrated with Microsoft Visio for a project in Microsoft Project on a computer running Microsoft Windows talking to Microsoft Windows Server. Sheer momentum kept that going for two decades.

But nor for long… Now it’s all Web 2.0 and social media and whatever comes beyond that. (“Web 3.0” anyone? “Web 4.0?”). Why spend $800 on Microsoft Office when your computer’s web browser (or your phone’s!) is the gateway to the world’s data and conversations? All mashed together for free!

Microsoft wants in.

But the Death Star is hard to manoeuvre. There is a culture shift in Microsoft as the closed-shop old guard is replaced by a generation of programmers brought up on open standards. But as one Microsoft employee reckoned, “it’ll be at least another decade before the outside world starts recognizing the change.”

In the grand battle against Google, a decade is too long. Yahoo already has street cred thanks to cool tools like photo-sharing site Flickr and “social bookmarking” site del.icio.us.

But will mum’s accountant really understand how to run the nightclub?

Disclosure: Stilgherrian is a smug but blissful Mac user.

Peter Fray

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