I’ve been laboring under the belief that Microsoft’s tardiness in enhancing its Internet Explorer browser was a mistake, opening the door for alternatives like Firefox. But at a dinner recently, one of my tablemates offered a very different explanation. Microsoft has deliberately avoided enhancing Explorer, he argued, because it doesn’t want it to get too good. As long as browsers are hampered by poor responsiveness and incompatibility problems, they’re less likely to provide an alternative user interface for a broad range of applications. Microsoft, in this view, wants the browser to be good enough for viewing web pages, but not so good that it takes over the desktop.
I certainly have some doubts about this thesis, but it seems to be backed up by a new story in Fortune. In interviews with the magazine, Microsoft’s chief executive Steve Ballmer and director of platform strategy Charles Fitzgerald both went out of their way to pooh-pooh the browser’s ability to serve as a front end for applications. What should become the default interface for business apps, they argued, is Microsoft Office. As Fortune’s David Kirkpatrick reports: “Ballmer said the browser just isn’t good enough as an interface to corporate information. ‘As people want to view information, comment on it, mark it up, and make it pretty, then you want to do that in Office,’ he says. Added Fitzgerald in a follow-up e-mail: ‘The browser is a great way to access information, but a pretty crummy tool for acting on information. It is basically read-only.'” According to the magazine, “Ballmer said Microsoft wants Office to become the front-end portal to just about every business application.”
Transforming Office from a set of by-now mundane office applications into a common interface for enterprise applications is a smart move for Microsoft. It’s probably the best way for the company to maintain – or even expand – its traditional hold over the user interface in business. But it also exposes conflicts in Microsoft’s business. If the company wants to maintain the dominance of Internet Explorer, it’s going to have to dramatically improve the program, which it’s promising to do with the rollout of Windows Vista next year. If it doesn’t push Explorer’s capabilities forward, it could face the worst case scenario: the browser emerges as the default front end for applications while Explorer is displaced as the leading browser.
It’s in Microsoft’s interest, in other words, to enhance the browser, but it’s also in the company’s interest to keep the browser “a pretty crummy tool,” as Fitzgerald put it. In a very real sense, Office and Explorer are now competitors.