In a recent post poking a little fun at the pure browser-based services, Microsoft general manager of platform strategy Charles Fitzgerald wrote:
The reality is the desktop is moving into the cloud and the cloud is moving onto the desktop. The winners will bring together the unique capabilities of both. The losers will cling dogmatically to one or the other.
He cited salesforce.com, the poster child for browser-based applications as not so pure of heart in the cloud:
Salesforce.com is cited as an obvious poster child. Yet Salesforce has performed a complete u-turn from the article's premise [a Wired article, "Desktop R.I.P."] and has quietly rolled out Salesforce.com Offline Edition, a Windows client for their service. I assume they are quiet about it because they don't want to have to change their "1-800 No Software" phone number, yet they can't be competitive in sales force automation without enabling people to work on airplanes, in customer lobbies or if the service goes down.
Charles has a rich client bias coming from Microsoft, but his fundamental proposition that hybrid applications is where software is heading is unassailable. Hence, Zimbra, Zoho, ThinkFree and many others who have pioneered browser-based, AJAXed applications are rushing to provide offline clients that bring more speed, persistence, a richer user experience and disconnected access. "An AJAX client is often too slow to be useful," he told me prior to his presentation at the SDForum event, "Platform 2.0: The Next Generation" in Santa Clara.
"They all want a local piece of code to get the user's attention, whether it's Ebay, Google or Yahoo. They all have downloadable clients, toolbars, communicators and code for mobile devices," Fitzgerald said.
He identified Apple's iTunes, the New York Times Reader, Windows Live Writer, the BBC interactive media player and instant messengers as examples of richer user experiences derived from a client+service approach that takes advantage of the processing and storage at edge of the network. "You can't cling dogmatically to particular runtime and give customers a better experience," he emphasized.
"Getting wrapped up in the dogma of what is a client is wrong. It's about what scenarios make sense. We are not interested in jamming through a particular technology," Fitzgerald said. "We are moving to a multi-headed model."
Microsoft has some cloud/browser based applications, such as HotMail and Windows Live Office (a set of collaborative tools and applications for small businesses without IT support), which integrates with Microsoft Office (client productivity apps). Microsoft Office has services that sit on top of Sharepoint, such as Excel Web Access, but it is not a full Excel client. Microsoft Outlook has about 200 million users and Outlook Web Access has 100 million users, Fitzgerald said, and a text-to-speech component for mobile phone users.
In his SDForum presentation, Fitzgerald talked about the world evolving toward as software+services model. Xbox Live represents that transition, Fitzgerald said. "What's so interesting about Xbox Live is that it brings together software and services in a very powerful way. Xbox takes advantage of local processing and the Xbox Live service has a community aspect and updating on the fly. The opportunity is to bring to get best of both worlds. I encourage enterprises to check it out."
Fitzgerald defined "platform" as capabilities, such as APIs, and opportunity, in the sense of access to customers. "You can have a lots of arguments about what is a platform, but have to look at validation from and ecosystem, with people making money and contributing value," he said.
Microsoft, and the rest of the industry, is in the process of making the transition from the client/server to Web and beyond and building out their ecosystems. A major part of the transition is in how software gets monetized.
"The old enterprise software model of an Armani clad, low golf handicap salesperson are over," Fitzgerald said. "Increasingly telesales is the model, and when you play with the sales model is has radical implications for the business." It's not just licensing fees, but subscriptions, ad-supported and transaction fees as part a multi-headed revenue stream.
In addition, architectural decisions--moving existing code bases to a services model or starting from scratch to deliver mulitenancy and other software-as-a-service features--is a major decision, as well as the reality that services aren't like previous generations of software that you ship and then take a vacation. "Shipping is just the beginning...it's 24x7," Fitzgerald said.He also said that a platform includes federation. "We are moving into world that is fundamentally a mesh," he said. He gave examples of identity and processing metadata as areas in which federation, where the services, data or other elements are owned and operated by other parties but have to interact in a cross-boundary, federated way.
Federation also extends to developers, composing and stitching together a variety of different assets, such as mashups. "A new investment for Microsoft today is services designed and consumed by developers. The XML protocol model is a foundation to do phenomenal stuff," Fitzgerald said. "We are ready to move to the next level to take advantage of the infrastructure, mixing a variety of client, servers and services."