Column You can spot a veteran of the Browser Wars a mile off. These fearsome conflicts, fought across the desktops of the world not 20 years ago, left deep scars. Just whisper "Best viewed in IE6" in any crowd of Generation 95'ers, and watch grown men and women weep like babies as their hands grasp for an invisible mouse to click on that long-gone Close Window.
By Gen XP, it was all over and the internet desktop was under total Empire control. Then came the Rebel Alliance of Chrome and Firefox, and in a few short years we were liberated.
Like every peacetime generation, those since have forgotten the conflict. They assume that freedom is here by right. The desktop is an antique battleground, as obsolete as warships in the Baltic. We are mobile, we are cloud, all places where access lock-in is baked out.
Bad news. Windows 11 is going to change all that. Grab that Lee-Enfield .303, soldier. An old enemy reawakens.
Internet Explorer turned a 5 per cent market share against Netscape into a 90+ killer score by the simple expedient of getting integrated into Windows 95 through a service pack. Windows 11 is certainly very, very keen for you to use Edge, which as in Win 10 pops up in system search even if you make your default browser something else, but there's no sign it'll become anything more than the Chrome Install applet.
No, the new superweapon you'll get for free is Microsoft Teams, which is now super-snugly installed on the Windows 11 desktop and just a click away from easy-peasy sign-on to the Empire. Everything else that MS really wants you to use – OneDrive, Office 365, those blasted widgets – you can do away with. Teams? Ah, not so much. Teams is there, ostensibly, to talk to other people, and if they're on Teams you have to use it too. Documents, spreadsheets, files of all sorts – a OneDrive, Office 365 user can swap stuff with your Google Drive and apps.
In these WFH days, you have to talk to other people over the internet. The out-of-date battlefield is the physical office, the new shiny conflict zone is the mediation channel that carries all our work interactions.
And this time, there's not even an entrenched opposition. Google's conferencing system is a shambles that doesn't know its own name, and the only defensive line being drawn up is by Salesforce and the freshly mobilised Slack. It doesn't look good for Slack, which knows it – a year ago it started a complaint against Microsoft for including Teams in Office. No doubt it'll extend that to Windows 11, but nobody wins a world war in a courtroom.
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What makes the conferencing space as tempting a resource as Mesopotamian oil fields to the Great Powers? It's the same as the Browser Wars – those who control the conversation between humans and the digital control the world. Every file you share, every connection made, every link swapped, is treasure to be collected. It's all funnelled together automatically. Watch as in-Teams access channels spring up across businesses for helplines, content accumulators, special offer conduits, payment systems.
The long trail of interactions between conferencing system users, each other, and their resources, produces a rich seam of ready-to-mine behaviour that, because it is so task-focused, is massively monetisable. All that metadata – and real data – on Microsoft's servers, raw material ready to feed the AI/ML machines, just a EULA click away. Microsoft stands to gain a lot more than Salesforce here as it will be installed as default across just about every business in the world, and has a lot more stuff to sell you; if it gets home users into the Teams habit, it's back in the happy hunting grounds of IE6.
This is a terrible prospect, not just for Slack but for everyone. IE6's reign was marked by stagnation; all companies see spending development resources for a monopoly service as waste. It had its slave army toiling in the factory, they should be grateful for what they get. And if you think Teams is less fun than tickling the tonsils of a decomposing turbot, wait until Microsoft has settled in to enjoy its new monopoly.
What saved the world were internet open standards – Microsoft couldn't manage that lock-in, hard as it tried. This time, the standards don't exist or where they do, they're not used by the big players, who control the whole chain end-to-end. Third-party endpoints are not allowed. So it doesn't matter if you're on a non-MS desktop or a mobile device, you'll have to use the Microsoft app. No lock-in on the cloud? Do us a favour.
It may be too late; Windows 11 will be everywhere soon. The rest of the industry is in disarray. But a new Rebel Alliance could be built, if the Googles and Salesforces and Amazons and Apples decide that living in a federation of states is preferable to seeing the whole lot go back under the four-pane logo of old. If Microsoft has the most to win, it also has the most to lose – Salesforce's Slack love is as a CRM channel, where it will end up getting the metrics and aggregated channels anyway. Google and Amazon have the reach and the infrastructure to sell conferencing services on the open market, with open access points. And they are creatures built from open standards, unlike Microsoft. Google won mobile by being open. If it showed any sign of understanding conferencing, that'd be nice.
Pinning your hopes on an uneasy alliance getting on a war footing before a focused opponent has already won is not how any sane person would make a better world. But the evidence for hope is there. Just ask the veterans of the last war, and listen when they say – there is a better way. ®