There are a lot of words you can use to describe Microsoft. You could say, for example, that it is one of the most dominant tech companies of the past 40 years. That's true both in terms of its market value, as well as the prevalence of its software with consumers and business customers.
You could also say that it is, in many ways, one of the most respected and trusted tech companies. The company consistently ranks near the top of lists of which tech companies people trust.
Now you can add another word: troll.
That's not usually a word you could use with any degree of affection. A troll, at least as we think of the online version, is someone who sticks their nose into something purely for the purpose of agitating someone else to get a reaction. That's exactly what Microsoft has been doing lately.
In this case, however, it turns out it just might be a brilliant PR move. Microsoft, despite being one of the four most valuable companies on the planet, and having had its own history of legal battles with antitrust regulators, has largely avoided the scrutiny facing its peers this time around. And the company is happy to make that point at just about every opportunity it gets.
Take the company's president and chief legal counsel, Brad Smith, who last week suggested that the U.S. should adopt a similar media code to the one Australia is implementing. The Australian proposal prompted Google to enter into a deal to pay the country's largest news organizations for appearing in its products.
"I think the Australian government has found a way to redress the imbalance between news publishers and big-tech gatekeepers," Smith told Insider in an interview. "News content is creating real benefits for these platforms. At the same time, the use of these platforms is eroding the traditional economic base for independent journalism."
Smith also suggested it was a "mistake" for Facebook to block all sharing of links from Australian news sites. And, earlier this summer, Smith encouraged regulators on both sides of the Atlantic to look into Apple's control over the iOS App Store.
"I do believe the time has come, whether we're talking about Washington, D.C., or Brussels, for a much more focused conversation about the nature of app stores, the rules that are being put in place, the prices and the tolls that are being extracted, and whether there is really a justification in antitrust law for everything that has been created," Smith said.
That sentiment conveniently ignores the fact that Microsoft operates two different app stores, one for Windows, and one for Xbox--the latter of which is about as closed a system as there is. In fact, that's a point that Apple has made in defense of its own App Store.
Every company tries to differentiate itself from the competition by whatever means it can. In Microsoft's case, the company is capitalizing on the fact that it has largely flown under the radar as far as regulators are concerned. The message is essentially "look at these tech companies causing all of this trouble. Someone should really do something about their unfair monopoly power."
Despite the obvious pot calling the kettle a monopoly, it's interesting that Smith's role as president seems to be to act as the snarky cop to CEO Satya Nadella's calm and composed cop. For now, if the goal is to point an unflattering light in the direction of Microsoft's competition, it's a strategy that seems to be working.
There is just one problem, and it makes the strategy risky for Microsoft. No one likes a troll. And, in the case of Australia's media code, Microsoft is pretty transparently disingenuous. Clearly, the company would be thrilled if something were to disadvantage Google Search since that would almost surely benefit Bing, Microsoft's competing search engine.
As for Facebook, which I've argued was right for taking the position it did in response to the law in Australia, Microsoft's position looks a lot like political convenience. In that sense, the company seems to be piling on to the anti-Facebook sentiment, despite the fact that the law in Australia is just bad.
Finally, in regards to Apple, Microsoft has as much to lose--especially when it comes to the iPhone maker's public spat with Epic Games, which makes the popular Fortnite game. Does anyone think that Xbox won't be next on the list if Epic is able to force Apple and Google to change the way they operate their respective app stores?
Still, that Microsoft has managed to largely avoid the level of scrutiny facing almost every one of its competitors, while also highlighting their biggest problems, shows its strategy is not only an effective troll, it's a brilliant PR move.