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Microsoft looks at iPhone development

I always find it interesting how stories develop and get reported, as you might expect. So let's look at one example.

The other day, Fortune published a story about Microsoft investigating iPhone development called Microsoft looks to cash in on the iPhone. Here are the pertinent bits:

Don't think for a minute that Microsoft is ignoring the iPhone. In fact, the software giant is probing the gadget for profit opportunities.

For a little more than a week, a team of the company’s Silicon Valley software engineers has been examining the iPhone software development kit (SDK for short), a set of tools Apple released this month that let outsiders build software for the iPhone and the iPod touch. Microsoft executives aren’t sure yet whether they’ll find worthwhile opportunities to sell iPhone software – but they seem eager to find out.

"It's really important for us to understand what we can bring to the iPhone," Tom Gibbons, corporate vice president of Microsoft’s Specialized Devices and Applications Group, told Fortune on Monday. "To the extent that Mac Office customers have functionality that they need in that environment, we’re actually in the process of trying to understand that now."

"We do have experience with [the Mac] environment [on which the iPhone is based], and that gives us confidence to be able to do something," Gibbons said. "The key question is, what is the value that we need to bring? We’re still getting comfortable with the SDK, right? It’s just come out. So we had a guess as to what feasibility would be like, now we’ll really get our head wrapped around that."

Note that Gibbons doesn't say that the Mac BU is considering porting Microsoft Office to the iPhone. What he does is say that the Mac version of Office satisfies a need in that market and that Microsoft would like to satisfy a similar need on the iPhone, whatever that might be. They'd like "to be able to do something" there. Makes sense.

Note, too, that the Fortune article is a bit heavy-handed. Microsoft is looking to "cash in" and it's "probing the gadget for profit opportunities." This language is purposeful. The author has a point to make, and he's using language to make it: Microsoft's examination of the iPhone is purely profit-driven. As it would be, I guess, for a multi-billion-dollar corporation like Microsoft.

So how does this story with direct quotes from a Microsoft executive get translated into other articles around the Web? Pretty predictably, as it turns out.

MacWorld UK cites the source and provides a semi-accurate assessment of the story: "Like everyone else, Microsoft is looking at the iPhone SDK with a view to extending its Mac products for use with the device." Actually, Gibbons didn't say anything about "extending" its Mac apps to the iPhone. But that's a logical assumption. And he did use the word "extent," which looks similar. OK, I'm joking.

UK-based Tech Digest adds some intrigue to the story and only indirectly links to the Fortune original. "Microsoft [has] been poking around in the recently launched iPhone Software Development Kit to see what they can find. They have two compelling reasons to do so: iPhone is an obvious competitor to Microsoft's Windows Mobile technologies, and Microsoft also shares software interests with Apple - Mac Office being one example. So there are good odds that Microsoft will be looking to implement some Mac Office software on the iPhone." They also guess that Microsoft will want to port Silverlight to the iPhone, which is also logical enough, but just a guess (Steve Ballmer said it would be nice but admitted they had never discussed this with Apple). The curious bit here is the headline: Microsoft sniffs around iPhone SDK, finds double-edged sword. Apparently this refers to the fact that Apple will take 30 percent of whatever Microsoft earns via iPhone software sales. I guess.

Information Week cites the Fortune interview correctly and its headline and story are non-sensational. But they make a little bit of a leap with the Office assumption: "Microsoft plans to offer software for the iPhone, saying in a recent interview that developers are considering a variety of possibilities that include offering Office functionality on Apple's smart phone." There's a bit about Exchange compatibility too, which makes sense given IW's target market.

The Mac Observer offers a simple rewording of the actual Fortune article. It's like you took the Fortune article and passed it through a word processor which was programmed to reduce the word count without losing the meaning. It adds absolutely zero information to the original, just summarizing it instead, kind of like a high school essay.

Newsfactor plays the analyst card, which I always enjoy because most tech reporters aren't allowed to have their own opinions, so they're forced to ring up an analyst to get a quote and, I hope, some analysis. This time, we get someone from IDC who says that "it's in Microsoft's interest to make sure everything works as it should" if iPhone users send Office documents as email attachments. Thanks for that compelling observation there. (There's also a bizarre bit about open source software for some reason.) Kudos for the use of the word "coopetition" as well, though all of the other articles touch on this topic without actually using the word. But a big thumbs-down for mentioning Fortune once but not actually linking to the article.

Ina Fried at CNET does a typically excellent job, correctly referencing the original article and then actually taking the time to get additional information directly from Microsoft, making this, most likely, the most compellingly journalistic of the follow-up articles that appeared in the wake of the Fortune original. "A representative for Microsoft's Mac business unit told the company is 'excited to see improved and updated products and services for its customers' but had nothing to announce as far as its roadmap."

Finally, this one is too fun to pass by. Gene Steinberg says that "Microsoft is eyeing the arrival of the iPhone with dollar signs in their eyes," as if the company should instead be considering a more philanthropic path. (I think he's riffing off the attitude I noticed in the Fortune article as well.) "[Microsoft is] busy looking over the iPhone SDK for possible application opportunities — applications you’ll be able to download, for a price of course." (Supposition aside--Microsoft has never actually said whether it will give away or charge for any iPhone solutions it creates--I suppose the money earned from all those advertisements on Gene's site are given to charity, which is pretty much the only logical explanation for the weird attitude about a corporation trying to earn revenues. Shame on them!) There's more Microsoft baiting in there, but it's off topic. Well, maybe not for Gene.

Is any of this really interesting? I don't know. It's not a sensational story per se, and nothing will come of it in the short term. But we throw around terms like "bias" with regards to the media a bit too much these days. I do think everyone puts their own spin on things, and you can see that here. But it's not so much "bias" in derogatory sense as it is just a natural side effect of life's experiences. We all see things differently.

My mile-high view is this: Microsoft has pretty much announced that it's interested in iPhone development, but they see it as a niche side business, like the Mac, where they can fill some holes, not as a tier-one platform like Windows. And ... that's about it so far. That, of course, doesn't make for much a news story. Which is why I didn't write one.

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