Innovation from Microsoft?

I bit the bullet and installed Windows 8. The verdict? It’s the best 1st generation ‘next generation’ OS Microsoft has ever released. It’s better than Windows 95 and better than Vista (relative to what they were are the time, of course). What I thought they would fail to implement (the split personality interface-formerly-known-as-Metro vs. classic desktop experience) they somehow managed to make work. Even though the cartoonish Start screen makes this old beige tower professional IT guy a little squeamish, it still works. And the press is correct: Windows 8 is a reinvention of the Microsoft OS. What the press has largely missed, however, is that Microsoft has, mostly unnoticed and unpublicized, already reinvented itself and Windows 8 is one of the last steps, not the first. And Microsoft has not been particularly vocal about what it is doing.

Even those that sense something more determine that Microsoft is now about being a social platform or
hardware independent. It is much more than that. Some have also made the mistake of thinking that Microsoft wants to become like Apple, but I don’t believe that is the case. Apple’s ignorance of business concerns is a major flaw. It understands the commercial market, but there is only so much money there and is fundamentally fickle and exhaustion prone. It’s nature is directed towards commoditization. They are already falling into the litigiousness that other companies tend towards when they see their competitive advantages slipping away. And people notice. As it turns out, Apple’s hipster cultural inclinations that made it a success is poorly serving it now.

Microsoft wants to make money whenever *anyone* use technology services. If that happens to be socially focused services, it’ll provide a way for you to interact with them in an easier and more consolidated fashion (you can integrate your major social media accounts in the native Windows 8 ‘People’ app, for instance). Microsoft is no longer a software company; it is a *service platform* company. That is, their core products are no longer shrink-wrapped boxes sold off the shelves or through OEM channels. The revenue numbers, still heavily bent towards the traditional product lines, do not tell the full story, which is why I think it has not been captured by the business press at large. They haven’t picked up that Office is becoming Office 365 which is integrated with outlook.com which has the same look and feel of Windows 8 which integrates back to your Office 365 calendar which is connects with your company’s CRM (customer relationship management) solution. And I don’t think most understand how truly different Azure is. Amazon has a well-developed cloud platform (which is in some ways better than Azure). You can even deploy SQL Server and SharePoint in Amazon’s cloud in a show of Microsoft’s new openness. But, they are simply exposing platforms with the primary benefit being hardware abstraction and scalability. They have not made it easier to work with these platforms as services (at least not to the same extent).

From a solution point of view Microsoft now offers not individual services, but a *pattern.* Just like, say, MVVM or MVC gives a developer a broad protective boundary in which to work, the Microsoft ecosystem gives corporate IT a path to bring its services under control. Microsoft knows that the biggest challenge to enterprise IT is making all of those systems that have invaded the company actually work effectively together. Just about every major IT shop in the world has a mish-mash of products and services gathered from this or that vendor whose marketing VP went to Harvard with the CIO cobbled together with poorly documented integration efforts. The holy grail of corporate IT is to make it easier, faster, and less expensive to deploy and maintain business-facing services and applications. Microsoft has long provided products that business rely on. And they have always generally worked *better together* than competitor’s products. Microsoft’s products were not always best of breed individually, but as a collective they had a clear differentiation. Until now, that integration has been internal. Now, Microsoft wants to allow you to bring non-Microsoft products into the fold. Want Hadoop? Sure, here’s an SQL Server connector and we’ll also make it fundamentally better. And we’ll give you a way to deploy it in Azure. Want Linux ? Deploy it to Azure IaaS. And it’s FLUID. If your data architects decide it’s better to have a your data store in Azure vs. SQL Server, right click and select ‘Deploy Database to SQL Azure.’ If you want to keep writing Java, go ahead, they will provide source control for you and give you a platform to run your app servers. If that technology is developed and marketed by Microsoft, even better. But, if not, they’re going to make it easier than anyone else out there to work it into your existing plans. And they’re going to present AppFabric to let you tie it all together. They’ve been laying the groundwork on this for years.

Windows 8 is simply the way people are going to experience all the machinations behind the scene. Microsoft needed a way that it could expose these services to end users in a way that made sense and was consistent no matter which device they decided to use. Windows 8 does that. But, the important advancement Microsoft has made is that it will be easier for companies to pull themselves together into the ecosystem and start presenting themselves more effectively to customers.

It’s still too early to determine how successful this is going to be. Windows 8 isn’t exactly flying off the shelves and there are still major hurdles to be overcome before we see widespread adoption of Microsoft’s model. Some of these challenges are technical and some reach right down into the chaotic nature of corporate IT. Even with my admiration for what Microsoft is trying to do I have serious reservations about it’s ability to execute. That’s a subject for another post. But, the fact that Microsoft has been able to make this fantastically difficult cultural shifts is extraordinary. Steering a huge ship that became as calcified as Microsoft was for so many years is a feat certainly worth noticing.