Microsoft is alive. Alive!

The stand alone computer is dinosaur, but will New Zealanders be able to make use of its successor?

Microsoft’s launch of its Windows and Office Live service proves one thing: the era of the networked computing is upon us.

As ever, Microsoft is somewhat late to the party. The first time I heard the term “application service provider” was in 1998 at a Citrix event in Florida. While the term ASP has fallen out of favour since the burst of the dotcom bubble, the practice itself shouldn’t be ignored. Companies like Spendvision, which offers an expense management application that is entirely hosted on Spendvision machines and accessed via the web, are making money despite the much-reported death of the ASP.

Now, Microsoft is getting in on the act in a big way. Online services that combine email, instant messaging, office applications and the rest have the potential to change the office products suite as fundamentally as object-oriented programming did back in the 1990s. Instead of having to synch my desktop calendar with my laptop, with my cellphone, with my PDA, I will have one repository for the data and can see it optimised for the various devices as and when I choose to access that data.

Whether this version of Microsoft’s vision succeeds or not, it’s compelling stuff. However there is a stumbling block and it’s one that will send groans throughout the Computerworld office if not the marketplace itself. The whole thing is dependent on fast, cheap, ubiquitous broadband access and frankly we don’t have that in New Zealand.

Several years ago I had a chat with one of the men running United Networks communications business. He was fairly fizzing with excitement at the prospect of offering seriously cheap seriously fast capacity to Auckland’s businesses. The discovery that United Networks, back then nothing more than a gas company, had the barebones of a widespread, well-placed network of conduits that were carrying gas but could also carry fibre was something of a surprise to the company. The story goes that it nearly didn’t realise what an asset it had until an older engineer pointed it out.

The reason he was so excited about the network was because his previous job had been trying to get an ASP-based business off the ground. It failed, as they almost all did, because of the staggering price of telecommunications. Nobody would buy the service, he said, because it cost more to run an application rental model than to buy the product outright.

Sadly, United was swallowed by Vector, which is still resisting the urge to get into the telco market in a big way, although its recent submissions on broadband to the Commerce Commission suggest something’s bubbling away beneath the surface. But that’s another story.

The reason for the groaning in the office is that I’m writing another editorial about broadband. The groaning’s mostly from me because I can’t believe we’re still forced to consider network access a story worth writing about in 2005. It’s still news because instead of treating bandwidth as a commodity, which it surely is, the telcos insist on treating it as if it were a bespoke, hand-crafted, one off, objet d’art, and that’s creating some tension in the marketplace. Tension creates news and there isn’t anything I can do about it.

The network, you see, is as important as the computers, the systems, the nodes on it. Without that connectivity you cannot take your computing power to the next level and begin to make serious inroads into productivity gains.

Will Microsoft’s move pay off? In the long run, Microsoft is not easily beaten. It’s set its sights firmly on Google, on the internet and on the end user and frankly it’s got the track record and the cash to back up its words with actions. Does anyone remember Windows CE? Oh how we laughed when it was launched. WinCE. Geddit? Version 2.0 was no better, version 3.0 got a new name and still Palm was number one. Then, while Palm dithered and navel-gazed for several years, Microsoft ate its lunch. I would hope Google would learn from history but you can never tell with really smart people. For all that it lumbers and bumbles about, Microsoft is a giant with incredible resources and, most of all, tenacity.

Microsoft may be late to this party, but let’s see if it doesn’t end up owning the whole shooting match.

Brislen is Editor of Computerworld

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