Back in November I went to a Microsoft event here in Dallas called “Ready to Launch”, part of the launch “tour” for Visual Studio 2005, their latest development IDE, SQL Server 2005, their enterprise-level database (probably runs your bank), and BizTalk 2006, a product I’ve only heard about from job recruiters and apparently no one actually ever uses. There was a lot of cool stuff there, vendors, lectures, etc. But the real reason everyone (myself included) went was this – everyone who went got a free copy of Visual Studio 2005 (and SQL Server 2005 and BizTalk 2006). That’s worth taking a damn day off of work.

So here was Microsoft spending untold gobs of money (they had it in the Dallas Convention Center which ain’t cheap) on top of the ton of money they spent to develop Visual Studio 2005 and SQL Server 2005. And this was one stop on one tour, which had hundreds of stops around the world (several units toured simultaneously). All to launch products which they had every intent of giving away for free to people who attended.

To the average person this logic doesn’t make much sense. Heck, to the average developer it didn’t make much sense either – but they went anyway since, ya know, free software.

So what was going on here? Well, this entire event was probably the single biggest and most obvious manifestation of Spolsky’s theory that Microsoft really wants to give away development tools and the only thing stopping them (other than DOJ antitrust violations) is the fact that if they did obliterate the competition (i.e., Borland) then Windows would be subject to vendor lock-in, making it a less inviting development platform (to some degree this is virtually what is happening, but on paper there are other options besides Microsoft)

But what winds up happening is that Microsoft makes compromises. They give away the software, but only to a select few. They only put on the event in select locations (mostly major metropolitan areas) and limit attendance to those who reserve well in advance. They only give away the “Standard” version of the software, the “Professional”, “Enterprise” and “Super Dragon” Editions they reserve for paying customers. And they drag you out to a day-long pep rally to make you excited about developing for Windows, complete with vendors and a catered meal.

And it works, of course. No one says “why would I go to that? I can get GCC or MONO for free and start developing now for free” – they sign up for these events in record numbers.

Microsoft, as everyone knows, relies more or less 100% on Windows. They also rely on Office, but Office is bascially nothing without Windows. They have to sell Windows, or else they can’t afford to do anything else. No one wants to buy Windows unless it can run popular programs. So Microsoft will do whatever is neccessary, just short of freely giving everything away, to keep and encourage Windows development.

Microsoft is in a pretty unique position in history. No other company has ever been able to do what they have done in the same way thay they have done it. They not only came up with the most popular of the early operating systems for personal computers, but they were able to attain a virtual monopoly prior to the massive expansion of the PC market. The hardware changed and got commoditized, but you still needed Microsoft’s operating system (be it DOS, DOS and Windows or Windows) or else you couldn’t run the popular software. Their revenues doubled every year even though no one was buying their software from stores at a retail price – it just came with their machines.

Few other industries are like this. Cell phones exploded over the last few years but no single vendor provides the underlying operating system for them – each cell phone vendor just makes their own. This is why things like Java and Brew come along to try and make programs run on cell phones (slowly, without 100% compatibility). Car makers go to a dozen or more tire manufacturers when they ship cars to dealers. Microsoft was smart, determined, but most of all: lucky.

Problem now though is this – now everyone has a computer. Everyone. Well, ok, not everyone everyone, but when my Grandfather-In-Law has a PC he uses to look up tractor parts, you’ve pretty much reached the saturation point. So now Microsoft can’t make as much money hand over fist like they used to. The only way they make money now, other than selling things besides Windows and Office, is to sell upgrades. So Windows 98 begat Windows ME which begat Windows XP which will soon begat (begit?) Windows Vista. And of course Office goes through more frequent upgrades.

The only other thing Microsoft could do to create more money is to enter into new markets. So you see them do things like create SmartPhone software – basically, their take on the operating systems you see in phones. Since you rarely see them in phones however, it’s obvious that Microsoft doesn’t have what it takes to enter that market. They’re doing OK in the PDA market – they had 30% market share with their PocketPC operating system in 2001 or so, but now they’re doing so well that Palm is considering selling them. Problem is though, people are using PDA’s less and less – they want one device in their pockets, not two (a PDA and a cell phone), so the PDA loses since it can’t place phone calls (and the ones that do are, you know, PDA-sized).

But there is one device which is already in every home in America, even more than the PC – the television set. Microsoft has tried repeatedly to get on TV sets. At the dawn of the Web era there was a company called WebTV that tried to get a set-top device with a wireless keyboard and mouse, allowing people to browse the web on their TV sets. A poorly executed idea (it used a propretary browser which rarely rendered things correctly) it was on its way to death when Microsoft bought it and marketed it as their product. It still lingers today as MSN TV but it never took off.

Microsoft tried to enter the PVR market with UltimateTV but it never made a dent in the market held by TiVo and ReplayTV. They have tried some one-off devices, things that hooked up to televisions and let you view photos and so forth. And most recently they unveiled the bizarre and underused Windows XP Media Center Edition.

But in 1999 or so a guy at Microsoft named Seamus Blackley had an idea that Microsoft should try and enter the game console market, currently dominated by Sony and Nintendo – he figured the inexpensive, powerful, and well known commodity hardware of the PC, coupled with the ease of use afforded by DirectX, would make for an unbeatable console.

Microsoft allowed the Xbox to happen for one reason – they saw it as their way to get onto television sets. And this time it might work.

Microsoft surely realizes that games are the only thing keeping Windows on top. OK, so it’s not really the thing that keeps Windows on top but it sure as hell does help. Firefox has captured over 10% of the web browser market from IE. People have literally moved web browsers, something many people don’t even realize is an option, because they’re so sick of IE and its issues. It doesn’t matter to them that they can’t visit their bank’s website anymore, they’re tired of worms. And a number of people would probably consider a Macintosh or maybe even something like Linux but they know that their games won’t come across, so they resist. Applications have substitutes, games don’t always. If you move to Linux then you can run OpenOffice instead of Microsoft Office. Sure, you’ll be missing some stuff, but if you can live without them then you can make the switch (incidentally, the feature-OpenOffice-is-missing-and-I-can’t-live-without-it differs from person to person and collectively keeps the world on Microsoft Office and Windows). But Half-Life 2 is only on Windows. Period. Not on Linux or Macintosh. If you leave it can’t come with you.

So who cares about operating system politics when you’re killing headcrabs?

So Microsoft realizes that they can use the Xbox to get on American televsions. And it worked, pretty much.

The Xbox (1) was a game console, period. They did do a couple of things non game related – you could buy a software package allowing you to rip MP3’s to the hard drive, for example, but the real plans were for the Xbox successor, the Xbox 360. They finally realized that there had to be a hook in order to get onto American televisions, and high-end gaming was it. Unlike their forays into the cell phone and PDA markets, they figured the strength here was also to make the hardware as well as the operating system (in this case, the prorietary embedded OS built into the machine). Heck, they had even tried the make-the-OS-not-the-hardware bit when they teamed up with Sega to make a Windows CE port for the Dreamcast – and we know how that system turned out.

So – everybody wins. Microsoft wins, comsumers win, everyone wins. Right?

Well, one teeny tiny problem. Namely, the pre-existing game industry.

See, Microsoft was able to manipulate the game industry into helping it get onto the television sets of the world. Well, mostly in North America and Europe – Japan pretty much told Microsoft to stick it. And it’s not like the game industry didn’t also win here – they got to deal with someone who’s not Sony (totalitarian) or Nintendo (quirky – people tend to buy a Nintendo system and then not buy non-Nintendo games on it). Sure, it’s the same company that destoyed Sun and Netscape and anyone else who dared compete with it, but hey – at least it was an American game console, right?

The game industry, like all other game industries, wants profit. They see hurdles in the way of their profit. First off is piracy. Next off is the difficulties involved in supporting many platforms. Finally there’s updates, future content, and online play.

There’s two divisions of the industry – the PC and Consoles. Both have advantages and disadvantages. The main advantage of the PC is that you don’t have to run anything past anyone, No censors, no quality committees, and most importantly – no royalties to anyone. Microsoft gets a cut of every game sold on the Xbox or Xbox 360, they don’t get squat when a Windows game is sold. But the PC is also the home of the CD burner, so anyone, in theory, can pirate any game they want. Disc-based copy protections, online CD keys and so forth help, but they can all be overcome to some degree, and they’re harder to implement and support. Consoles can more easily lock out piracy (your average person isn’t ambitious enough to open up their machine and start soldering chips) and since they’re the exact same hardware every time, the support costs involved are much smaller – no trying to troubleshoot why someone with an off-kilter combination of hardware keeps getting a BSOD every time he opens a particular door. But on a console you have to get it right the first time. Prior to the Xbox’s hard drive, “patching” a game was impossible and even with the hard drive and the Xbox Live service, it’s not a given the person is even online or capable of getting the patch (it’s not really a given on the PC either, but it is more accepted). Plus the manufacturing options for console games are smaller and every unit sold means royalties to the console maker, on top of whatever the console maker gets paid to manufacture the game for you.

Still, what’s happened in recent years is this – with the increased costs of supporting the PC’s myriad of hardware, plus the fact that the PC has more widespread piracy, more and more publishers are loathe to make PC games. The Xbox essentially was a PC, with its Pentium 3-based processor and DirectX API. Microsoft figured this would make it easy to develop for the Xbox. It did – it almost made it too easy. Many publishers started to phase out PC game development entirely, based off of the idea that the effort to get the Xbox and PC versions in sync wasn’t worth it, so go with the platform that has less piracy and sells more units to people who can be guaranteed that the game will work when they get it home.

This poses a problem for Microsoft. If games leave the PC they leave Windows. If games leave Windows, then in theory one of the biggest reasons the home users stay on Windows at all goes away. The hell of it is though, one of the biggest vehicles for causing this change, the Xbox, was invented by Microsoft. And the Xbox 360, if left unchecked, could just make this worse.

So Microsoft came up with a way to do both – they call it XNA. Using it, developers can come up with an Xbox 360 version and a PC version of their games simultaneously. They even released the game MechCommander 2 for free to demonstrate it. They also give away XNA for free, not entirely unlike their approach with Visual Studio 2005 and the “Ready to Launch” tour.

So far the approach is working – id Software is developing their next game using it, even going so far as to say the Xbox 360 is their primary development platform now. When John Carmack endorses something Microsoft does, then you know they did something right. id released DOOM 3 for the PC in 2004 but it was well into 2005 before a second developer was able to get it running on the Xbox – with cut down levels and graphics. However, Raven was able to get an Xbox 360 port of Quake 4 ready for the Xbox 360’s launch, just one month after the PC version hit stores. And the current must-have RPG, Bethesda Softworks’ The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, debuted simultaneously on the PC and Xbox 360, sporting some of the best graphics ever seen.

It’s no secret I’ve not been a big fan of the Xbox 360 for various reasons, mostly that I figured it might hurt PC gaming. But now I have a different take on it – Microsoft sees their Xbox 360 platform not as a PC gaming killer but rather as a complimentary platform to the PC. Both have their strengths – no one is going to play Civilization IV on their Xbox 360, but the 360 is cheaper than upgrading a PC and it takes advantage of HDTV. The 360 even integrates with Windows Media Center.

I still don’t own one and may not even bother with one this year, but I no longer hate the Xbox 360. I still prefer Oblivion on my PC though.