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Future of the Empire:
An Outsider's View of Microsoft Products 2010

by Dave Thomas

Recently, Microsoft has been emotionally eclipsed by Apple and Google in the eyes of many Alpha Geeks and Consumers.  It is no longer the love of the market as Apple, Google and Facebook dominate market coverage and valuation multiples.   Windows Vista seemed to signal that the pervasive OS was just too big and bloated to improve.  This was followed by disappointing performances in MSN Live: Search:  Zune; Windows Mobile, cancellations of Kin and Courier; windows tablets and cloud computing. These events had even the most loyal MS advocates concerned about the company’s future.  Steve Palmer is the antitheist of the Bill Gates, who lead with technology, rather than throwing marketing sand in the face of the competition.  The dismantling of Live Labs and the recent departure of Ray Ozzie, who was passed the chief architect baton from Bill Gates, also raised questions about future innovation and left the company run by a 70s salesman and a CFO from Wallmart! All of these events seemed to signal the decline of the Empire! 

Windows 7 and Office 2010 – Iron Discipline Turns the Ship and once again The Dollars Roll In

It seemed that only a miracle could save Windows after Vista, but Steven Sinofsky, long time office Czar delivered Windows 7.   Windows 7 was an immediate hit inside and outside MS.  It just worked!   It was a brilliant exercise in disciplined engineering with strong top down control by 3 generals: Product, Development and Test.  It takes incredible discipline to move an army of developers and a mountain of code to a new quality release. While it was a little slower taking off, Windows 7 and Office 10 have the Microsoft cash machine printing money again!  Windows Live and Windows Phone are driven by the same engineering discipline, so it seems that customers invested in Microsoft will have confidence in future stable and hopefully, more timely, core system releases.  

SharePoint Runs Away with Departmental Content

While everyone is touting cloud storage, the portal vendors are being killed off by SharePoint.  SharePoint’s seamless integration with Office and the numerous opportunities for ISVs to build add-ons and solutions has made it the quiet giant in departmental and corporate document management.   According to Microsoft, SharePoint Server is one of the fastest-growing products in Microsoft’s history, with over $1.3 billion in revenue. Integration of Live Mesh technology makes this a serious challenger for Dropbox, and other online document syncing and backup services.

Languages and Tools – Innovation and Retrenchment

Visual Studio lumbers along with Team Foundation Server.  It is still by far the most popular IDE for C++, C#, and VB. It has numerous small improvements, but it still lacks the nice refactoring capabilities of ReShaper.  With the addition of Expression Studio, Microsoft offers a full suite development tools for designers, web developers (a shot at Dreamweaver) and C++ developers.  Team Foundation is still cumbersome and doesn’t yet offer the streamlined experience of open source tooling.  It is a pain to install and configure for large teams and difficult to extend hence a small ISV market.

During recent years, Microsoft languages have out innovated Java with first class generics; improved data access through LINQ; the dynamic language runtime (DLR) and the new functional programming language F#.  The DLR promised to have first class dynamic languages such as IronPython and IronRuby supported by Microsoft.  Unfortunately, they seem to have declared failure in the dynamic languages with the dynamic language runtime religated to Codeplex and the departure of Jim Hugunin. Does this mean Microsoft will focus once again on Microsoft only languages?  One wonders if another LINQ or F# will ever escape from their research labs. C# now supports the defunct DLR with the new dynamic type making C# an everything language, both a floor wax and desert topping. Perhaps it is time to take some things out of C#? 

LINQ cleverly augments Haskell lazy evaluation machinery with a duck type style type system to provide uniform access collections of relational, object or XML data.  LINQ continues to shine with implementations in virtually every language and Reactive LINQ provides an elegant solution to async programming.  Unfortunately LINQ isn’t all that well understood by the Microsoft community, but its use is growing.  Java unfortunately has seen no innovation in this area.

SilverLight and/or HTML5?

Microsoft continues to push Silverlight —  its proprietary XAML-based technology for portable rich client applications.   IE however continues to lose market share. In response to the success of HTML5, particularly in video and on mobile platforms, Microsoft is now positioning HTML5 as the way forwardInternet Explorer 9 touts performance and standards compliance competitive with Google, Safari, Firefox and Opera. It uses a combination of clever optimizations as well as some GPU support to offer what promises to be a better browsing experience with HTML5 and SVG support.  Microsoft has also embraced jQuery which is a defacto standard for many web developers.  And, Microsoft and Google are cooperating in an effort to offer a more secure JavaScript although it will be a while before we see the results in wide spread use.

Can You see Azure on a Clear Day?

Microsoft is clearly headed for the clouds but the actual product offerings are still a confusing mixture of almost windows desktop and almost windows server offerings.  They clearly has a long way to go to get any mindshare as a cloud platform relative to Google, Amazon or Facebook.   Microsoft needs a clear offering which challenges Google App Engine and Amazon EC2  in functionality.  They also need a convincing story for scalability and global delivery.  The Microsoft installed base is anxiously waiting.  Interestingly some companies such as Second Life deploy C# code on Mono on Amazon but I can’t see die hard Microsoft shops doing this unless they are forced to. Perhaps it is coming soon? We look forward to hearing LINQ’s Erik Meijer’s NoSQL keynote at Australia YOW! Conference.

Windows Phone 7 – Oh No!, Oh Surprise!

The announcement of Windows Phone 7  early in the year was seen by many in industry as the end of Microsoft in the very competitive smartphone business.  Run Windows 7 in a phone? The jokes just would not stop. To everyone’s surprise, Phone 7, although late to the market, appears to be a credible offering.   The UI doesn’t suck and has some nice innovations.  Most importantly, it's easy for Microsoft-skilled developers to create apps using either .NET or XNA platforms (Xbox, thanks to Halo Reach, is selling very well). Silverlight makes a third familiar development alternative for Microsoft-skilled developers.  It is interesting that a recent Silicon Alley insider chart showed 20% of publishers planned to develop for Phone 7.  Clearly only time will tell in this very competitive market, but at least Microsoft is back on the playing field.  Unfortunately, I don’t think it supports your cool new MS Xbox Kinect controller for intense phone interactions.

Wrap Up

Microsoft clearly has a long way to go to win the hearts and minds of the early adopters and the financial analysts.  However, massive revenues from Windows 7, Office, SharePoint, and Xbox as well as the huge installed base, make it dangerous to dismiss the potential return of the Microsoft Empire.  After all, look at what happened to Apple when Steve Jobs' great leadership brought a down-and-out Apple back to life! Bill... are you listening?  Only time will tell if Microsoft will respond to the future challenges articulated in Ozzie’s departing letter