When Microsoft began its domination of the PC desktop, it succeeded in part because the program suite was a logical extension for users accustomed to the Windows operating system. And when Microsoft gained share in the browser market, plenty of people cried foul but used the tool anyway. As a result, Microsoft was able to keep a foot firmly planted on the secure ground of operating system growth by leveraging its existing supply chain. However, this security blanket of past successes may be becoming the very thing that holds Microsoft back from becoming a major player in the business interoperability movement.
Consider the mid-market--companies with between 100 and 1,000 employees--a segment that both IBM and Microsoft are trying to win. Traditionally, the mid-market has been the last sector to make the plunge into technology migration. Unlike enterprise companies in the Fortune 1000, mid-sized firms can’t afford to invest in the infrastructure needed to ‘grow up’ a product. At the other end of the scale, shrink-wrapped small business packages are often insufficient for the requirements of mid-sized companies, as they do not offer the scalability, security or sophistication required for a relatively large user base.
So until now, the mid-market gap has been filled by enterprise software trickling down from larger solutions packaged by ISVs – software companies that have traditionally rallied around technologies that they can leverage successfully.
Most mid-size businesses use a blend of platforms on the server side, and PCs or terminals for users. For the foreseeable future, there’s no indication that Microsoft will support devices outside the Windows environment. Microsoft is unable to control the messages communicated by its supply chain, so it jumps straight to the business user with a “simple solution” message.
As we move into 2003, Web services technology is creating a seismic shift in the IT industry landscape. The technology tornado around J2EE, XML and Web Services isn’t about language or data format; but is focused on interoperability. There’s no single company controlling the standards, no proprietary technology controlled by a monolith. So no matter how good the technology, or how low the purchase price, a solution will work only if it is truly interoperable with the prevailing industry standards.
For more than three years, we have seen Microsoft devoting tremendous time and energy to standards-based development, while at the same time trying to undermine it. First it introduced J++ and Passport, and when that failed to be accepted in the market, the company moved on to C# and .Net. Despite the fact that Microsoft is dipping its toes into Java and has become less belligerent towards Linux, the company remains firmly wed to a Windows environment.
Microsoft’s ‘one degree of separation’ advertising campaign depicted a world where businesses communicate with little or no effort. The fantasy was splendid, but it was just that--pure fantasy, because integrating transactions takes more than simple XML connectivity. Setting the expectation that it can work in the real work could hurt the Web services movement in the long run, especially if business professionals take a Windows-only path seriously.
On the other hand, IBM and others have embraced a variety of open standards to build their e-business software platforms. Today, we are seeing foundation products mature and vendors beginning to branch off into building business components that solve specific problems using popular technologies. While Microsoft remains focused on rolling out infrastructure and trying to explain its .Net vision--or on pulling out of its branding strategy altogether--the Java marketplace has refocused on standardizing business applications and streamlining development tools. This is what the mid market has been waiting for.
Last years’ watershed moment was when IBM launched the Eclipse project and donated it to the open source community. Hundreds of vendors pooled resources and intellectual capital and opened up opportunities for innovators everywhere to build plug-and-play tools and utilities. It is industry efforts such as Eclipse that will contribute to a ‘whole product’ solution for the mid size business, since it is unlikely that any vendor can provide an entire solution for interoperability to meet the demands of the mid market business without embracing open standards.
For Microsoft to deliver on Web services and appeal to mid-size companies, the company will need to shift gears and interoperate with all existing systems, even Linux. And that will not be simple.
Tony McCune is the Director of Business Development for CrossLogic, an IT professional services firm with about 35 consultants focused on Java, XML and Web Service based solutions for business and Web integration. He recently served as the President of the Atlanta IBM WebSphere users group and frequently speaks at IT user groups about Web integration in a multi-platform environment.