When the Internet became popular in early 1990s, Microsoft was late to the partly. In a desperate catch-up move, Microsoft decided to drive Netscape (the most popular browser of the time) out of business by grafting Internet Explorer onto Windows.
The U.S. government slapped Microsoft with an anti-monopoly lawsuit, which hung around in court for about a decade, by which time Netscape had become an historical footnote, rendering the issue moot.
By that time, though, Microsoft no longer dominated high tech. Industry growth was shifting to up-and-comers like Google and Facebook, as well as a resurgent Apple. And so it remains today: Microsoft is too big to ignore but, frankly, about as exciting as IBM.
All that might change in the next few years, though, according to a recent article in Business Insider. Turns out that Microsoft is quietly testing a product, code-named “Bali,” that would completely disrupt and even destroy the business models of its chief rivals.
Today, online firms gather information about us, and use that information to increase the effectiveness of the ads they display by better targeting them to prospective buyers. Under this business model, Facebook and Google get 90% of the world’s online ad revenue.
Microsoft’s Bali turns that equation around. With Bali, you own your personal online data, which you can (if you choose) sell to the companies that want to target you with ads. Facebook and Google would only know what you want them to know.
Everything about you would, by default, be private. If you wanted it to remain so, fine. But you’d also have the choice to tell Facebook, Google and other online firms that “you can track me and sell ads to me but only if I get a piece of the action.”
In short, you’d get paid to use the Internet.
Will it work? Well, in the wake of multiple privacy scandals, this seems like an idea whose time has definitely come. And there’s no question whatsoever that Microsoft has the technical chops to develop and bulletproof the environment.
On the downside, though, Microsoft’s most successful products (Windows, Xbox, Azure, etc.) are imitations of innovations from other firms. The company’s track record launching something completely new is spotty, at best.
Still, if Microsoft pulls this off and Bali catches on, Microsoft might easily find itself in the same enviable position of massive market dominance it had back before the Internet upended their erstwhile Windows monopoly.
Frankly, I’m not sure I want Microsoft to have that kind of power. I am sure of this, though: if a single company is destined to dominate the future of the Web, I’d damn sight rather it be Microsoft than Facebook.