Thinking About Tech Pluralism

Thinking About Tech Pluralism

An economist has me wondering about tech ecosystems

Satya Nadella's "mobile first, cloud first" strategy has triggered a lot of hand-wringing among the Microsoft faithful, with many worried that the firm will lose its leadership role by ceding control to Google and Apple. But I think Microsoft's new direction is pragmatic, and reflects the realities of the market. And I recently read an interesting economics-focused editorial that may help put this change in perspective.

Thomas L. Friedman is a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and economist, and he recently penned an editorial, Three Cheers for Pluralism Over Separatism, for the New York Times. The article is about separatist movements in Scotland, Spain, and elsewhere and other related political topics, and while that's all very interesting in its own right, you're probably wondering what it has to do with Microsoft.

The answer is, nothing, at least not directly. But as is so often the case with my one-track mind, as I read this editorial, I kept drawing connections between the political issues he discusses and what's happening now with Microsoft and the tech industry.

The Friedman editorial is about pluralism, a term with which I was not familiar, and how it differs from diversity. Long story short, pluralism describes "a system in which two or more states, groups, principles, or sources of authority coexist."

The key here is the last word, coexist. Whereas diversity is simply about there being two or more "states, groups, principles, or sources of authority," with pluralism, those things actually coexist. Where diversity can lead to conflict ("separatism"), with pluralism there is actual integration. Mashups and collaboration. Trust.

At the dawn of the PC age, a wide variety of platforms vied for the attention and dollars of consumers. Various companies—many of which, like Atari, Commodore, and Texas Instruments, either no longer exist or no longer resemble their prior selves—produced rival hardware and software platforms, making it difficult for developers, consumers, and businesses alike. Over time, a natural consolidation occurred, and the PC market coalesced around the IBM PC and compatibles, and around MS-DOS and then Windows. There was always a small, but major secondary player—Apple and the Mac—and then a variety of smaller players (Amiga, OS/2, Be OS, Linux), most of which came and went.

This condition existed, if not peacefully, then at least stably—for over 20 years. But with the rise of pervasive connectivity and new mobile platforms like smart phones and tablets, things are suddenly changing. The old way of doing things has been disrupted, and while we're still waiting to see how things shake out exactly, it's clear that personal computing has changed forever. We're not going back to the old way.

There are two conflicting points to be made about this new market for pervasively-connected mobile computing devices. Even though it's still early, the market has once again coalesced around one major player (Android) and one minority player (iOS), and a variety of outliers. But the market is also evolving more quickly: While it took Microsoft many years to establish and the hone its market dominance, companies like Apple (mobile devices) and Google (services and advertising) have launched into dominant positions very quickly. It's not clear if the old rules apply anymore.

Certainly, there are a variety of relatively small platforms competing in the device space, and companies such as Microsoft, Nokia, Blackberry, Samsung (Tizen) and even Firefox (Firefox OS) have argued that there is room for a third platform. On the services side, it's even messier, with a huge number of third party services—Dropbox, Box, Amazon, and many, many more—competing with each other and with the major players.

It's hard not to compare this situation to the dawn of the PC age, and to wonder whether these markets will also consolidate down to a few major platforms each. I do believe that's the endgame, and that we'll enter another (more brief) period of stability until we move on to the next big thing. The Internet of Things, perhaps. Whatever.

Microsoft has two choices. It can continue with its previous strategy—a forced kind of diversity in which it artificially propped up the Mac a decade ago, for example, to "prove" to antitrust officials that Windows really did have competition—or move to a new model, which I'm thinking of now as tech pluralism. That is, don't just tolerate the fact that there are other popular platforms. Embrace them. Integrate with them. Establish trust.

The problem with tech pluralism, of course, is that it has to go both ways.

With Apple, we see an increasingly less hostile relationship with Microsoft. But if we're being honest with ourselves, that's happening mostly because Apple has bigger issues with Google. As for Google (and Amazon, for that matter), we see only open hostility, at least towards Microsoft. (Oddly enough, the company fully embraces the rival iOS platform.) So neither Apple's nor Google's mobile apps/services work fully on Microsoft's devices. Only Microsoft is truly opening up to all rivals, and then, too, by necessity.

What users really want, of course, is true tech pluralism. The ability to run any app or service on the device of their choice, and to mix and match as they see fit. In the past, this happened through consolidation, where the number of options was basically reduced to a more manageable level. But that's like a cold war, an uneasy balance. The question is whether we can arrive at true tech pluralism, a sort of nerdvana where the user really does come first.

So far, only Microsoft is embracing this concept: You can get OneNote on an Android Wear Watch, Xbox Music on your iPhone, OneDrive on an Amazon Fire Phone, and Office Online on Chromebook. And while I understand that it is doing so pragmatically, and by necessity, it's a hard not to wish for the rest of the industry, idealistically, to follow suit.

Hide comments


  • Allowed HTML tags: <em> <strong> <blockquote> <br> <p>

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.