Microsoft has discovered a way to recoup its expensive investments in media content in the late 90s. It's going to give them away as part of the 'megaservices' concept to be made flesh at its Next Generation Windows Services, or NGWS strategy launch next week.
The hint came from Bengt Akerlind, the Microsoft VP of embedded system group, who promised "We'll make MSN, WebTV, Expedia available to developers." Akerlind was formerly head of Microsoft OEM sales, and one of the priviliged twenty one Microsoft employees called to the witness stand.
Don't take 'give away' too literally though folks, this is Redmond after all.
But from what we've gathered the services portion of each property will be available to ISVs, Web content developers and appliance manufacturers as part of their own value-add offering.
So suppose you want to create a kiosk for the good town of Palookaville, and have your own content ready, listing the local pet manicurists, oral hygienists and realtors. Naturally you'll want to add travel information, so your visitors can book a one-way ticket to Palookaville... So in steps the Expedia "service", from which you'll be able integrate travel information seamlessly, thanks to the magic of NGWS back-end integration.
A similar, and far more lucrative paradigm applies to WebTV's interactive content, which has particularly rich pickings for advertisers. As one of the very few systems that's come close to cracking 'interactive' TVs holy grail - of jacking the MPEG digital TV signal to HTML format web pages - WebTV is a prototype for a whole new business model of click-throughs generated by bored TV couch potatoes. For example, the related links to a major sporting event might link through to your store, community page. Or at least, that's the plan.
Of course the 'Megaservices' ruse is a tidy way to clear up the motley collection of media content investments and other acquisitions - most obviously Hotmail - that Microsoft made between 1996 and 1998. Some, such as Expedia are under new management, but firmly remain (despite having its own NASDAQ listing) Microsoft property.
So with a week to go, we can pretty much see what makes up the NGWS vision thing.
You'll have back-end to back-end data flows, delivered in XML, that basically look like "composite" web pages from a variety of sources. These might be B2B exchanges, or quickly lashed-up corporate portals or personalised home pages... but all delivered to a Microsoft "Digital Dashboard," which might be IE or Outlook, depending on how fat you want your client. And any or all of these might go off and trigger a string of transactions. Finally, to give the framework some momentum, come the seed content deals. We'll be surprised if Microsoft hasn't arranged some showpiece Fortune 500 names to pony up, so that Expedia and WebTV aren't left alone shivering on the stage.
How does this play?
Very nicely actually. It allows Microsoft to claim the high ground from warring standards vendors - much like it did with the Unix wars - only this time it's protocols, not APIs - and sell the ease of use and ease of integration pitches in one go. Right now, content aggregation means striking a financial deal (you shake hands and agree to allow each other access to the dirty, physical back end stuff), or a technical deal, or crude screen-scraping. That's where Microsoft's SOAP and XML investment pays off.
But it also plays particularly well with the kind of technologically illiterate suits who wield the chequebooks in corporate IT shops, and who have always hated scruffy hacker types, with their talk of incompatible protocols. With shades of its ERP alliances, Microsoft is again promising to package the essentially unpackageable. We think they're misguided, but we know there's an boardroom full of people willing to be misled... ®