Every once in a while I like to ponder this question. Love them or hate them, there is no question that Microsoft has a massively diverse ecosystem of products. And while they’ve clearly slipped in mobile and possibly even general personal computing mindshare, their catalog of assets remains extremely powerful. With Windows 9 looming, and unlikely to deliver anything truly revolutionary, it seemed appropriate to do this type of entry. You know the kind… It’s the “CEO for a day” fantasy. So what should Microsoft do in order to recapture some of that magic which they have undoubtedly lost? In a word (or two) – true synergy.
Synergy is one of those words that got over used by management consultants and, as a result, became a cliché and so is now met with exasperation anytime it slips into the discourse. Make no mistake though, there is actually a such thing as synergy and in this discussion, it is very much relevant. Synergy simply means when two things come together and the result is something more than the sum of their parts. So with that in mind, let’s consider the current state of technology for a moment. Three key trends have become entrenched over the past 6 years or so and are now delivering on their potential to provide synergistic value (there it is again!) through convergence (another good buzz word!):
- Consumerization: work computing, educational computing and “lifestyle” computing are all blending. Whereas previous generations (including even “Gen Y”) had only an informal, or perhaps, utilitarian, relationship with technology, the Millennial generation has a life integrated relationship with technology. When I grew up (Gen X checking in!) we still had black and white TVs with rabbit ears and rotary phones. Todays generation has no idea what a landline is and consumes most of their media through a 5 inch screen they carry in their back pocket. They aren’t so much technically savvy, as they are reflexive. To young people today, a tablet or smart phone is no different than a toaster. They just use it and they take for granted that it is there. They also expect an extremely streamlined user experience, a ton of capabilities, and minimal cost. If you take your cynic hat off for a moment, and really look at how the average young person books travel and integrates the travel experience into their life you’ll see consumerization at a glance. With nothing more than an iPhone, they will quickly purchase the tickets, plan the trip, put it on their calendar, check in at the airport, pickup the rental car, record the memories as photos, and put them directly online for friends and family to see while providing regular updates on where they are and what they’re experiencing in real time. All they need to do this is one device, a data connection, and a few free apps (call it TripIt, Facebook and Instagram).
- Commoditization: anything which consumerizes, commoditizes. This is the essence of economies of scale. Add to that the amazing effect of Moore’s Law. The interesting thing is that, while computing power has continued to double long after it should have slowed thanks to the creative brilliance of process engineers, there are many tasks which don’t need tremendous amounts of computing power. As the highest gets better, faster, stronger, the low end approaches free. And free is very good news for integrated intelligence. This is why we are seeing an explosion of incredible, and inexpensive, “smart devices”. Wrist wearable devices that can monitor your health and record it online. Smart homes that can be both programmed and run remotely. The entire “internet of things” concept is computer intelligence applied to normal devices. It won’t be long before this model is the rule. It will simply be “free” in the box.
- Ubiquitous Networking: nothing mentioned above works without universal, high quality, low cost, network connectivity. As a matter of fact, it was the internet becoming the “killer app” of personal computing that actually enabled the above trends to begin with. Even amidst the polarizing debate of Net Neutrality, and the pressure of carrier oligopolies, it is still a pretty amazing time for consumer networking. A basic cellular phone data plan provides better absolute throughput than a commercial grade T1 line and in many cases basic data can be bought for $20 per month. In the home, 10Mb/s+ has become the norm with many regions having access to offerings up in the stratosphere at 100Mb/s+ all for $30-$50 per month and distributing this internet connectivity to any number of phones, tablets, TVs or computers is easy even for the completely non-technical thanks to consumer WiFi routers.
- The Cloud: Ah… The Cloud. The place I live. A term that came out of the gate bad even among technical people since it was primarily a marketing rebranding exercise on existing services, and has only gotten worse as a consumer buzz word. Fortunately, though, the technologies it refers to are very real and very powerful. People often ask me, after hearing what I do for a living, “hey, so what is “the cloud” anyway?!” This can easily be a four hour TED talk or an eight hour whiteboard session, but I like to boil it down to a few illustrative examples. “Have you ever watched a movie on Netflix?” “Do you use Facebook?” “Have you ever booked a trip online?” Well that’s the cloud. Regardless of the intricacies of how IT is transforming, and how developers are evolving, at the end of the day the consumer view of “the cloud” is simply anything they do which has an internet component. People don’t need to know that Netflix is built on an IaaS rather than on-prem servers in a datacenter owned by Netflix or that DropBox is utilizing the S3 object store to house customer date. What they really need to know is that they have “movies from the internet” and “save their files to the internet”. The internet is where everything is going today and Facebook, Microsoft, Google, Apple, Amazon and a thousand other providers are scrambling to collate, curate, index and archive it. For some this is uncomfortable. Possibly even very uncomfortable. Skeptics are vocal. Issues like the iCloud celebrity photo theft incident generate a lot of buzz. Ultimately, though, this is similar to what we saw when we transitioned from mainframe computing to distributed systems computing (lots of personal computers doing the work of a mainframe and terminal). All of the same doubts and all of the same fears and a trend that was just as irresistible. For the young generation this technology is reflexive. They are only moving forward, not backward.
Why have I wasted all of this space rambling about trends? Well I think it is important to recognize that the above is the reality of our current environment. This is a fact that, while it was absolutely recognized, took far too long to actually influence Microsoft’s behavior. In other words even as Microsoft was “talking the talk”, they weren’t “walking the walk”. Today with Windows Phone 8.1, Windows 8.1, Xbox and their cloud offerings (Azure, Office 365, Xbox Live) they’ve started walking. Slowly to be sure, but definitely walking. This brings us back to that word “synergy” again. Let’s take a look at some of the synergy Microsoft has gotten right today:
- Roaming profiles for consumers: What does this mean? Well simple. When you use a computer (or mobile phone or tablet, which are also just computers at this point), you customize things. Maybe it’s your browser bookmarks. Or your desktop background, or your color scheme. These customizations are tied to your “login id”. The name you use when you log in to your computer. In the past you had a login id for your home computer, and then you had login ids online for various services. A whole tapestry of passwords. Years back Microsoft introduced the concept of a universal login (they called it Passport, incidentally), and everyone went ballistic. No one had any intention of trusting Microsoft with identity!!! Well fast forward a few years and those folks have either aged and gone away, or they deal with it because today everyone relies on some form of “universal id” in order to access and pay for things. Maybe its your Apple id, or your Google id, or yes even that old Microsoft id (Passport lives!), but the fact is that universal ids are a thing and they are good. Starting in Windows Vista you could at least associate a local login name on your computer with an online id. As of Windows 8, your online id can be your primary login. Once you set that up, you can allow your settings to synchronize. If you do this, anytime you login to a newly setup PC, your customizations will be applied. This is a “very cool thing” and a time saver. Google does similar work, but only within what they control which is Chrome (the browser and the OS) and Android. Apple also does similar work in their ecosystem with OSX, iCloud and IOS (they actually do a bit better, but this isn’t an Apple entry)
- Gaming and Entertainment Ubiquity: Once again, what the heck does that mean? Well to explain it, let’s juxtapose the big three competing ecosystems (not an Apple entry I know, but it’s easier to illustrate by comparison). Apple has a very “content first” strategy. They built their current empire on legitimizing digital music and movies (then they added books, but that was too late – Amazon already had that locked down). To really be “all in” on Apples vision, you need to embrace iTunes. You also need to be a passionate consumer of music and movies. If you do, and you are, then you have a MacBook, an iPhone, an iPad and an AppleTV and life is truly good. Your music and movies are all either local or “in the cloud” (iTunes match) and you can consume them from either IOS or Android. In addition you can utilize Apple “AirPlay” to send content from IOS (iPad or iPhone) to the AppleTV. Combined with iCloud synchronization of profile settings (described above), and backup, this is a very good story. Microsoft, by contrast, has really built on their gaming empire in the consumer space. Starting with the Xbox, Microsoft captured loyalty and mindshare and has largely held onto it. Over the years they’ve expanded the reach into content as well. The thing is, though, that music and movies have a much larger audience than console gaming, and Apple has the same advantage Amazon enjoys in books with Kindle, but with music and movies via iTunes. Microsoft has never caught up. That said, they have continued to do a good job evolving the story. Today Windows computers, phones and tablets can all recognize and Xbox Live id (the Xbox network login) linked to a Windows id (Hotmail, live, whatever) and deliver varying degrees of functionality. Settings can be synced, Xbox content can be shopped and purchased on a PC and sent to the Xbox, profile data can be updated (including customizing the avatar) and even some basic games can cross platforms. This is all quite neat, but mainly quite neat for gamers. Beyond this there is the new “Xbox SmartGlass” which is essentially a Windows and Windows Phone based remote control/remote screen extension of the Xbox. There is also the concept of the Xbox as a media hub with Windows being able to pull and display content from it, and going the other way with the Xbox being able to stream media from a Windows computer (albeit via DLNA which is an open standard for streaming media that anyone can support). Google, for their part, continues to build their empire within Android and Chrome. Their Play Store is a true rival for Apples App store, but much less so for iTunes when it comes to music and movies. That said, a Google id on any Google device gets you access to all of the goodies you’ve bought from Google and they’ve augmented this experience with “Chromecast”; a nifty $35 dongle that allows you to wirelessly stream content from a Chrome browser to an HDMI equipped TV (in other words, any modern TV) via WiFi.
- Storage it in the Cloud: Microsoft certainly isn’t alone here. If there is one cloud space that is mega crowded, it’s storage. Google, Apple and Microsoft all have native offerings, and there are powerful third parties like DropBox as well. Microsoft and Google, however, combine storage with online productivity suites for both home and work. For Google this is Google at Work (recent rebranding) and Google Docs and Calc for home users. For Microsoft this is Office 365 for home or business. The Microsoft offering is especially compelling in this space as it is full fidelity Microsoft Office in a browser, or entitlement to install the full application on a Mac, PC or mobile device (Windows, Android and IOS). Whether you’re creating documents natively in the cloud, or just using a “cloud drive” to back things up, the fact is that these offerings have all gotten extremely mature. Seamlessly plugging in to pretty much any platform via a small client install, you can transparently use them as if they were real local storage. In fact they are local storage until the network is up and they sync to the “cloud drive”. Of course once you commit to using one of these offerings, you will have access to your files anywhere on any device. This is tremendously liberating and absolutely worth any perceived “risks” (if your content is hyper sensitive, encrypt it before storing). In addition to primary storage in the cloud, media services like iTunes Match are essentially giving you massive storage in the cloud as well. If you can keep 1000’s of MP3’s up on a providers servers, and stream them when needed caching only the most used files locally, that’s tens of gigabytes of local storage saved.
- Rise of the App Store: Apple may rarely be first (iPod, iTunes, iPhone, iPad, App Store), but when they enter a market, they almost inevitably set the standard (see the list to the left). Sure Steam predates the Apple App Store, but it is the Apple App store that created the app phenomenon. Why is that? Well quite simply because mobile platforms are a very natural fit for an integrated and single click application purchase and installation experience. As it became clear that the App Store was the key to the iPhone’s success, competitors rushed to emulate it (including Google Play, the Windows Store and Amazon). In addition, Apple flowed the concept back to OSX for desktops, and the incumbent desktop app stores like Steam got even better. Considering all of this activity, and the fact that the Xbox was a core part of the Microsoft portfolio and had an app store of its own, it’s somewhat surprising how late and incomplete Microsoft’s entries in this space are. More on this in a bit…
So it looks like Microsoft, alongside Google and Apple, has been making at least some moves to create ecosystem value through services synergy. I believe, though, that they are leaving a ton of opportunity on the table. If you really think about what the end user ultimately values, it’s for the technology to become transparent. Consumers want to do whatever they need to do, when they are ready to do it, using whatever device they happen to have with them. They also want the experience to adapt to whatever form factor that might be. In addition, as they upgrade to newer equipment, they don’t want to leave anything behind. Now if you think about it, what consumers are really looking for is the type of experience Corporate IT has been providing for years now. This is particularly ironic in that consumerization and the cloud have been killers for core IT and are creating an “adapt or die” era. In this case, though, the consumer technology industry can learn a lot from IT. And Microsoft, as quite possibly the single most powerful enterprise computing vendor when you consider the breadth and impact of their portfolio, should be uniquely position to deliver here. What does this mean? A picture to illustrate:
What the heck is this about? In a nutshell, the above represents an extension of Microsoft’s profile synchronization strategy to all of their assets including full applications. If you consider the Microsoft portfolio, it isn’t so far fetched:
- Application Virtualization – this is key. Microsoft has a fantastic product in the Softricity acquisition that thus far has only been utilized in IT and, as a result, hasn’t reached its full potential. Application Virtualization allows applications to be fully installed (sequenced) into a container that can be run on any client computer that has the Player application installed. This means that the required local footprint is only the player. In addition the technology includes intelligent caching. Applications will start running as soon as the required files have become available and continue to cache files just in time in the background. Once fully cached locally, the application can be run offline. Once back online any updates to the application will synchronize
- Client OS – Windows desktop (including tablet) and Windows phone continue to converge. Things today are very rough, and the experience isn’t optimal on either device, but the foundation is there for this to change resulting in an adaptive experience that preserves what matters (user presence, configuration, application data and customizations) without attempting to paint every form factor with the same brush
- Cloud Applications and Storage – with a unified cloud storage offering that is extremely competitive and fully integrated into all of the Microsoft consumer endpoints (including the Xbox), and a productivity suite in the cloud that includes email, messaging, web presence and applications, Microsoft has the ability to deliver a good size portion of the initial setup experience for the typical end user
- Ecosystem – the Windows ecosystem is big and tends to follow Microsoft’s lead even today. If Microsoft were to mandate an agile app strategy, and promote the usage of the virtualization technologies (give them away to partners), the approach would become a standard. If this were to come to pass, and ISVs plugged into the cloud hooks, all applications on Windows could potentially be cloud installable
How would all of this actually work and what should Microsoft be considering for a future OS? Let’s examine what the user experience would look like:
- A Microsoft consumer, with a login id of email@example.com logs into a new PC connected to the internet for the first time. The PC is running the new Windows X which has “cloud aware application and data intelligence”. Billed as “the first OS for the cloud”, it claims to make upgrades a breeze.
- Customer “me” is registered as having Microsoft Office Home as well as 5 other Windows Store applications. They also have personalization information registered, an XBox Live account and a OneDrive. When they login, the Microsoft universal profile service looks up their status and discovers all of their assets. It lets the new PC know that 6 application containers need to be downloaded along with a set of customization tasks.
- The new PC acknowledges the customization and the pre-installed application virtualization client registers the new apps and begins caching them. The core OS proceeds with the customization including instantiating the local cache for OneDrive and configuring Game Center with the XBox Live profile information
With the new PC configured, firstname.lastname@example.org is off to the races. What happens, though, if they login on a device that they also bring to work?
- New cloud profile options are created for enterprise administrators. They are able to register their organization and manage “group policy” in the cloud. They can create an approval workflow by which user accounts can request and gain association with their organization and they can also pre-populate their organization with existing id’s programmatically or through a management console. The association becomes bi-directional with Active Directory accounts in the enterprise forming a federated association with the Microsoft identity management in the cloud
- When email@example.com logs in at work for the first time, the Microsoft cloud profile service recognizes that they have an enterprise profile associated with their account. It informs them that in order to gain access to any corporate resources, policies must be applied to their computer
- Once their configuration has been updated, they are able to gain access to corporate resources via federation between their cloud account and an associated Active Directory account that was created for them by their IT administrators. The IT administrators can break the association at any time which will trigger a wipe of any corporate data tagged in the metadata as belonging to their organization
So far so good, but what happens if they login from their mobile?
- Logging in from a mobile device, the profile service detects the change in presence. It examines their application portfolio and find that there are registered mobile versions for their applications that have not been installed on the mobile device
- The mobile device OS receives the notification that there are applications they have entitlement to that have not been installed, informs the user, and if approved goes ahead and installs the mobile equivalents
Lastly, how does VDI fit in?
- VDI fits into the story much the same way the corporate desktop does. If a user signs up for an Azure desktop (corporate or consumer), their existing profile is preserved onto that desktop. Any applications and customization are brought along
Summarizing, what the above vision represents can fairly be called real synergy. It would also go a long way towards creating a safer “evergreen” environment since applications could be patched centrally. In addition, development of this type of agility embedded in the operating systems themselves would help an already overburdened core IT bridge the consumerization gap and possibly even adapt new technology faster.
How close will Microsoft get to this? In Windows 9 I suspect not very. Down the road, however, I think if they don’t it is quite likely that Apple (or maybe even more likely Google) will.