Could Microsoft lead the re-decentralisation revolution?

This morning two articles surfaced in my feed reader. In one, US technology pundit John Gruber laid out his thoughts on why Microsoft’s recent appointment of ex-Azure top man Satya Nadella as CEO is a good thing. The post is well worth a read, although it’s one of his closing paragraphs that got me thinking:

The cloud is nascent, like the PC industry of 1980. In 30 years we’ll look back at our networked infrastructure of today and laugh, wondering how we got a damn thing done. The world is in need of high-quality, reliable, developer-friendly, trustworthy, privacy-guarding cloud computing platforms. Apple and Google each have glaring (and glaringly different) holes among that list of adjectives.

I’ll just park that thought for a moment. Because, later in my feed, was an article from the UK’s Wired magazine, where father of the web Tim Berners-Lee bemoans the increasing surveillance and balkanisation of the web. We’ve never—at least in my lifetime—trusted our (and our neighbours’) governments less. Snowden, the NSA, GCHQ; it’s easy to become blasé about the un-ending stream of sickening, state-sanctioned privacy abuses those guys manage to cook up. Berners-Lee clearly fears the very structure of the modern Internet is enabling governments and corporations to take an ever tighter stranglehold over our online lives:

“I want a web that’s open, works internationally, works as well as possible and is not nation-based,” Berners-Lee told the audience, [adding] “It’s important to have the geek community as a whole think about its responsibility and what it can do. We need various alternative voices pushing back on conventional government sometimes.”

It’s not just about governments, though. Decentralisation of the web has far-reaching benefits, even for—nay, especially for—the lay-person on the street. You don’t need to have something to hide to value online privacy. And you don’t need to be a geek to realise the value in, say, improving mobile data connections with cool peer-to-peer mesh networks.

And Tim’s right that there are, even now, a modest army of geeks – like the guys behind and featured in redecentralize.org – that are pushing back on the tide of closed, surveilled and inefficient web technologies, for everyone’s benefit.

Satya Nadella, Microsoft’s new CEO

But is there an opening here for Microsoft?

Could the great monopolist, the king of closed-source, user-hating software, perform an out-of-nowhere U-turn, and become the re-decentralised hackers’ choice?

Could it finally cast aside its allusions to owning the world’s computing time, and instead help geeks, businesses and governments everywhere grow their own individual but connected web experiences, from the ground up?

I don’t envy Microsoft. They can’t compete with Google and Amazon, who already have the cloud server market well and truly sewn up. Nor can they continue to rely on their existing Windows and Office product lines which, let’s face it, haven’t changed since the 1990s. The decentralised web (and even the Internet of Things) is a weird and unfamiliar market for them – hopelessly devoid of clear business models. And they’ve already lost too much ground to go to the other extreme and compete with Google and Apple for the Internet-connected handheld appliance space.

But maybe, just maybe, they can work out a balance somewhere between all four. “A PC on every desk” was a visionary goal. Nadella’s Microsoft needs another, equally visionary, goal for the 21st Century. One that aims to put computing power back in the hands, the safety and the privacy of the many. It’s against every fibre of the corporate monolith’s being, but can’t we all agree that if Microsoft, of all people, made it work, it’d be so astonishingly awesome?

We can but hope.