I ran into Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer briefly prior to his keynote at Gartner’s Symposium ITxpo, wearing a bright red sweater, and walking by himself—no entourage, PR handlers or flock of CIOs and conference attendees surrounding him. I've known Ballmer since my early days in tech journalism, and he has always been approachable. I asked him if he considered MSN as a platform for applications. I didn’t have to mention Google. He smiled and said that MSN has APIs and the company will be doing more in that area. So far, Microsoft has released APIs and developer kits for MSN Search, Messenger and Virtual Earth.
It's a beginning. Developers can also add AJAXed components to MSN Start.com and HotMail is becoming more Web 2.0-like. Combining of MSN and the platform group in the new company reorganization is a recognition that developing on the Web, as a platform, and in Web time (more rapid iteration) are important. Ballmer wrote a message to employees last month stating that one of the goals of the reorg is to "achieve greater agility in managing the incredible growth ahead and executing our software-based services strategy," and he put new CTO Ray Ozzie in charge of making services a priority. Gates has been talking up hosted services as an option, saying that the "idea of server equals service--getting the symmetry--there is part of our long-term architecture."
I asked Ballmer about the long development cycles, such as two years or more for Office and much longer for Windows, which is contrary to the more rapid iteration of Web applications. Microsoft has grown up creating grand plans with long software gestation cycles, but the Web lives by a more dynamic, survival of the fittest modality. Users participate in real-time in the evolution of the software. It's intelligent reaction, not intelligent design, as Adam Bosworth (formerly of Microsoft and now at Google) puts it. It's more chaotic and less predictable, which isn't necessarily what the IT executives attending Symposium ITxpo want to see or what's in the best interest of Microsoft's upgrade cycle business.
Ballmer told me that Microsoft would be bringing out more services and revving products more quickly. I guess that implies that Microsoft is changing some of its thinking about development across the company.
While at the Gartner event I got a closer look at the Office 12, which is due in the second half of next year. It has some really great features, but as I asked in a post last month (and separate from whether Office components should have a hosted application option), if the interface legitimately improves user productivity, and the underlying functionality doesn't have to change, make it available sooner than later.
More to come later today after Ballmer's Q&A with Gartner analysts...