Archive for the ‘Microsoft’ Category
There are events and then there are not-so-ordinary events that give us hints, even in their disassociation, about the direction that technological (or any other type, for that matter) developments will head.
In the past week we have seen three such events – Microsoft’s formal overture towards Yahoo!, Facebook’s less-than-stellar numbers and Twitter’s ongoing saga in trying to keep a web-scale messaging framework up and running – that give us tasty hints as to where we may be headed.
The simpler, shorter version of the Microsoft – Yahoo! story is that companies that do business in the old school way – a manner similar to a behemoth, clumsy and ugly in gait – are history on the internet. Lock-in of the user and his/her data to platforms or products is a strategy that is history. It is only a stellar product that will keep companies alive in the future. And neither Microsoft, nor Yahoo! have built and in-house hit web-scale product in recent times.
The feeling that keeps coming back to my mind is that Microsoft and Yahoo! will be one of those weddings that look perfect as a mental image (for the shareholders and business wonks), but in practice it ends up being an absolute nightmare. There is a staggering amount of redundancy (for every Yahoo! product you can think of, there is almost a competing one with MSN/Live.com) and the integration will also be rotten in terms of platforms and cultures.
Even if you set apart the strong stench of desperation in the move, the fact remains that these are two companies that are struggling to catch the imagination of the younger and upcoming generation. By the time the dust settles on this one, much confusion would have ensued, which would tick off the loyal users who make up a vast majority of the numbers that make the deal look exciting.
That said, it is indeed a sad development to see an internet icon like Yahoo! being in the position that it finds itself in now. And in that state of distress lies a story for everyone who makes a living off the internet – don’t take anything for granted. Earlier, a company’s lifecycle – from inception to success to the demise – used to take decades, now the same is being compressed into ten years.
It is a theme that I will never tire of telling everyone I know: being nimble is a priceless asset in doing business now – nurture it, grow it and covet it with as much care as you covet your bottom line.
Ars Technica has a nice piece that separates the wheat from the chaff on Windows 7, which is the successor to Windows Vista. As much as I dislike Microsoft’s Windows Vista, Windows 7 is a product I am deeply interested in since the man who is heading the effort is Steven Sinofsky, who was responsible for bringing out the revolutionary changes that was seen in Microsoft Office 2007.
Another reason why Windows 7 would be an interesting one to watch is because it will be the first major operating system release that will have the full weight of the new architect in town — Ray Ozzie — bearing down on it. Both Sinofsky and Ozzie represent a change in style and direction for the company, but what is more interesting is that the expected street date for Windows 7 — either late 2009 or 2010 — would represent a technological landscape that would be drastically different from what we see today.
Some of the points to ponder:
Google: The company has eaten Microsoft’s breakfast, lunch, dinner and the entire banquet. They are also making minor inroads into areas that Microsoft defends with all its might like the enterprise. Admittedly, a couple of thousand tiny firms defecting over to Google Apps is not even enough to make even the tiniest scratch on Microsoft’s bottom line, but what it does for sure is to create yet another distraction for the company when it could really do with none.
But to take these distractions as low-impact would be amazingly silly. Not every firm is born as a member of the Fortune 500 club. Some of them grow over years to become behemoths, others end up being medium size ones, while the rest stay on where they are. All of them represent sales of differing volumes and as Microsoft already knows, it is hard to get the enterprise segment to switch once they have made a choice. Most of these also upgrade their degree of involvement with Microsoft through time, adding more license seats and upgrades. In short, Microsoft is fibbing when they tell you that such players who move over to Google don’t worry them.
That said, Microsoft too is working on the “cloud” in terms of storage and processing to add that facet to their enterprise suite. But it is a hard one to pull off when you are playing both sides, saying Google’s strategy of being cloud-bound is flawed and also trying to up sell their own cloudiness at the same time.
Mobility: I will refrain here from writing on Google’s Android since it really has to be seen how it will play out eventually. Meddling in consumer-owned hardware is not Google’s strength and even if the platform is good, it will have to contend with operators and other variables (like Google’s bid for spectrum) in making it a success. Microsoft here has limited success, but the stars of the show here are Nokia (Symbian, Mameo) and Research in Motion (Blackberry). Between those two, the entire spectrum of individual users and enterprise has been covered, leaving Redmond not much wriggle space.
The possibility of disruption here is incredibly huge because it unbundles the data and processing from the desktop, which is what keeps the kitchen going at Microsoft, and puts it in an environment that is not dominated by Microsoft. Even at this stage, someone like me who used to open up the laptop every night at home, no longer does that because of my Blackberry that helps me access practically every service I need either directly or through Opera Mini. Two years down the line all of these services would be better by at least twofold.
Decreasing cost of technology: With the overwhelming influence of opensource, outsourcing and the commoditization of technology it has become easier and cheaper to start up almost anything these days. Almost every successful recent web venture has taken advantage of this and we have new players like Amazon (combination of S3, EC2 and SimpleDB) who now allow you to focus more on creating products than understanding how the individual parts work. In two years time, it would not be hard to imagine browser-based desktops and computing environments that function pretty close to how a regular desktop environment would function.
What this would mean eventually is that the base level of quality for newer products would increase with time, while the cost to create them would decrease dramatically. Compared to that, Microsoft would be spending more to release every new product and operating system and fighting more products that would be increasingly cheaper to build and better to use.
The next generation: My generation, the one that came before mine and the one that is to follow won’t be the same as the coming ones. We were not born in a world where computing surrounds us in various forms. Most of us who design the digital experience, do not natively think in such a world. While it would be wrong to think that people who think natively in those terms would be a vast majority by the time Windows 7 is pushed out of the door, a fair number of them would have the OS as a gateway to their digital experience and not designing the OS to meet their expectations would in all likelihood alienate them, while designing the OS with them in mind would alienate the current crop of users. It is a space that is not much fun to be in.
To conclude, it would be totally over-the-top to assume that by the time Windows 7 comes up the world would have walked away from Microsoft. They will be challenged very hard over many aspects of their business and there will be considerable erosion in their customer base. But to take even 2010 as a benchmark year would be foolish to see the impact new technologies would have on Microsoft. The enterprise is a slow moving creature and takes time to change and even Google can’t do much to change that.
I had my first major run in with Vista on Sunday after agreeing to fix Nikhil’s new laptop with a XP install. Since XP did not have the required SATA drivers, it would not recognize the hard disk drive and allow me to wipe it clean and ‘upgrade‘ the laptop to Vista. That left me poking around to see how the beast was and it is a user experience par compare in terms of being an absolute disaster.
First thing that gets your notice are the number of alert boxes that pop up for almost everything you do. I do “sudo” on OSX for everything that requires admin level access and I am also used to authenticating key actions, but Vista goes out of its way to make the experience almost entirely painful.
Secondly, they have worked REALLY hard to add another level of abstraction to existing screens and menus. For instance, the Control Panel, when you dig deeper, has pretty much the same layout and items on it as XP, but on top it is a totally different beast.
As a ground rule, what I’ve seen is that almost everything is harder by differing magnitudes on the entire operating system. If I had my own way, I would gladly pop the latest Ubuntu CD, wipe out Vista and forget all about it.
Microsoft may have made Vista one of the most stable OSes it has ever released, but what good is a stable OS if it is a royal pain to use in the first place? And I’ve not even gotten into the 14 different versions it has and the perpetual question: “will it do full Aero?” In any case, the eye candy is not even fun to use and serves very little purpose with the constantly throbbing and pulsating buttons.
I can only say that I’ve never been happier about switching.
One of the toughest decisions any company has to revisit time and again is whether it should build a product internally or if it should buy out/from a vendor who has already done the same thing. In simple, practical terms, the choice is between buying a pre-built wheel and building one from scratch all by yourself.
The greatest example of a botched opportunity on the same lines is the story of Yahoo! and Google. Long time ago, Yahoo! had actually funded the growth of a little-known company called Google — a decision that they must regret every day now. They could, probably, have bought out the company then (and could have done a huge favour to Microsoft by doing that and effectively killing it) and never looked back. They did not, and are now struggling to catch up with them in both search and advertising, which are Google’s core competencies.
It is very easy to kick Yahoo!’s ass for not having bought Google, but the fact of the matter is that it is a very tough decision to make when you are dealing with wheels. There is not much else than instinct to guide you in making that decision and sometimes it works out well, other times it just does not. But in general, it is not the best of ideas to be dependent on an external vendor on whom your business’s core value proposition has a critical dependency.
There are workarounds to the problem, like investing in the long term in developing the technical expertise in-house and contractual clauses that protect you against sometimes unavoidable circumstances, but there is no real proven method to pull this off each and every time. That, of course, is the reason why there are only a limited and small number of smart people in the world who can get it right. You just have to make sure that you are either one of them or, for lesser mortals like us, you work for one of them.