Microsoft may have presented a fair amount of new tech at CES this week, but the really interesting Microsoft product debuted by accident last week, when a website that was clearly meant to be hush-hush mistakenly went public.
According to a recent article in Business Insider, Microsoft was quietly testing a product, code named "Bali," with a sign-up website that it quickly shut down when the media got wind of it.
According to those who've seen the site, Bali allows you to own your personal online data, which you can (if you choose) sell to the companies that want to target you with ads. Companies like Facebook and Google would only know what you want them to know.
As things are 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 the current business model, Facebook and Google get 90 percent of the world's online ad revenue.
With Bali, 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.
That this would fundamentally change the internet is an understatement. Entire business models would need to change to accommodate the inability to automatically harvest and cross-correlate data gathered on users.
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 other hand, 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 the company's 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.