Last month, Microsoft's Macintosh Business Unit (MacBU) website went offline temporarily, causing conspiracy-happy Mac fanatics to wonder if Microsoft was finally going to pull the plug on its most infamous example of "coopetition" and simply abandon the Mac platform. As is so often the case, the reality of the situation--a temporary glitch, nothing to worry about--was far less exciting than the rumors. But it does beg the question: With Apple gaining usage share in the PC market regularly over the past several years, why is Microsoft propping up this ever-stronger competitor with the crucial Office productivity suite?
Another more pertinent example, perhaps, is Microsoft's Exchange ActiveSync technology. Exchange ActiveSync, of course, is the plumbing that connects Microsoft Exchange Server to mobile phones over-the-air, and it provides access to push-based email and synchronizes calendar, contacts and tasks. Originally, ActiveSync was a competitive advantage for Windows Mobile. But Microsoft now licenses IP like ActivSync to a whopping 500 licensees, including competitors like Apple, Nokia, Palm, Samsung, and Sony Ericsson. These are companies that compete with Windows Mobile in the mobile space. Put another way: Microsoft is promoting one of its product at the expense of another.
This week, Microsoft announced that it had licensed Exchange ActiveSync to yet another competitor, but this one is more powerful than most. Google, in turn, announced its Google Sync for Mobile Phone service, which allows popular mobile phones like the Apple iPhone, the Blackberry, the Nokia S60, Windows Mobile phones, and other devices wirelessly sync with Google-based contacts and calendars. As is so often the case with Google, Google Sync for Mobile Phone is absolutely free.
This is, I feel, unbelievably dangerous for Microsoft. The software giant already faces an exodus of customers, especially on the low end, to Google's free and inexpensive cloud-based solutions, solutions that compete directly with expensive and complex Exchange-based servers and services. By licensing ActiveSync to Google, Microsoft has in effect handed over the keys to the kingdom, allowing Google to give away what Microsoft once provided only for a heady fee. Google doesn't even use ActiveSync with Exchange, as is the case with most ActiveSync licensees. Instead, it uses the technology as a technological middle-man between its own proprietary servers and the many devices it does not make itself.
Now, some may argue that Microsoft had no choice and that the future of these wireless mobile devices is one of unfettered interoperability. Fair enough. But Windows Mobile is poised to be surpassed by the iPhone this year in usage, less than three years after Apple's device entered the market. Google's servers and services are usually free and--go figure--they've offered surprisingly good uptime and reliability, especially for the mass market of consumers and small businesses they generally target. By not offering a best of breed solution in key areas of these markets, Microsoft is no longer the go-to company across the board, and for a coming generation of technology users, especially, they're barely in the running at all.
Put simply, users can now get an Exchange-like wireless experience for free using Google's services and the phone of their choice. I'm not sure what Microsoft is receiving for the ActiveSync license that enables this functionality. But I doubt it's better than the lost revenues that come over the next few years as Exchange and Windows Mobile users dwindle. And that is almost assuredly exactly what's going to happen.
Oh, and as far as Office on the Mac goes, I say we're well past the time where Microsoft can justify the existence of its MacBU. It's time to cut the cord and let Apple compete on an even playing field, not one where the number one Mac application is created by its most hated competitor.
This article originally appeared in the February 10, 2009 issue of Windows IT Pro UPDATE. --Paul