So what will tomorrow's Microsoft look like?

So what will tomorrow's Microsoft look like?

Summary: It's all change at Redmond, with Julie Larson-Green taking over as Windows chief from Steven Sinofsky. But the underlying shifts at Microsoft run far deeper and will have a profound impact on the next decade of Windows.

TOPICS: Cloud, Microsoft, Windows

From the outside it looks as though it's been a week of turmoil at Microsoft. But as the confusion dies down, it's possible to see the past seven days as just another step to on the road to a very different Microsoft — a Microsoft that reflects changes in the way computing will be delivered over the next decade.

It's clear Microsoft has made some very big decisions about the future of development — and of the future of the company

We shouldn't be surprised. Every company needs to reinvent itself, and Microsoft's reinvention has been telegraphed for a long time.

There have been catch-phrases, public trials of tools and technologies, four or five years of evangelising web-service endpoints and model view controller frameworks that simplify building distributed applications, adoption of open-source technologies and licences, and now a whole new look and feel for Windows, along with a move into the PC business.

Steve Ballmer has described that future quite openly, calling Microsoft a "devices and services company". So what does tomorrow's Microsoft look like?

The future of development

First and foremost it's clear that the centre of gravity in the organisation has shifted. And that means that the heart of Windows future isn't the desktop — though the client will always remain important. As you drill down into the architecture of Windows 8, and especially its new programming model, it's clear Microsoft has made some very big decisions about the future of development — and of the future of the company.

Microsoft builds its applications and services with its own tools. That gives us a good place to start to map out its future, as the tooling for that future is starting to fit into place.

There's been some push-back from developers directed at the new WinRT APIs in Windows 8, with it seen as immature and less-featured than its older relatives Win32 and .NET — even though the runtime it calls is the same. But there's an important difference between those tools and WinRT. Win32 is a client-server era set of APIs, familiar to anyone who grew up developing with Visual Basic and connecting VB applications to mainframes and minicomputers.

The heritage of .NET is similar, but it's a generation on, delivering APIs for the N-tier app architecture world of separate presentation, business logic and data tiers. But as computing evolves, APIs have to change, and WinRT is designed for the new computing paradigm of smart clients working with cloud-scale services.

That approach means WinRT is not intended for complex desktop applications — that's why there's still a desktop in Windows 8 for your .NET and Win32 code. Instead, it's designed to deliver secure, sandboxed, front-ends to cloud services, applications running on Azure and on other web-scale platforms, including the private clouds of Windows Server 2012.

WinRT as a client

WinRT needs to be seen in the context of it being a client to the more complex APIs being delivered in Azure, with the WinRT app being the view to the model and controller in the cloud. That's why it's designed to project operating-system functions into JavaScript and to .NET-like C# and C++ applications.

At its heart, WinRT is designed to be the asynchronous client to service-oriented architectures that span line-of-business systems and consumer-grade cloud services.

WinRT makes it easy to glue together RESTful cloud services and to deliver endpoint services. It doesn't make it easy to build monolithic, massive local applications such as Photoshop — but then it's not designed to, and that type of application isn't part of the new way of computing, although it will be a long time before it goes away completely, just as mainframes and N-tier systems are still with us.

A WinRT Photoshop would be a window into a cloud service, where images are stored and manipulated away from the PC. You'd chose actions, see results, but the actual image processing would happen on cloud-scale systems.

Making Windows an SOA endpoint is crucial to this future. It doesn't mean a world of thin clients and web UIs masquerading as applications. We don't live in a world of perfect gigabit connectivity for desktop and mobile devices. Applications will always need to be able to run disconnected from the cloud, synchronising data when connected and being able to handle long-running asynchronous transactions.

That requirement means they need to be smart and capable of working offline. The Windows 8 UI is designed to allow users to dip in and out of applications as needed, switching quickly from task to task.

The cloud and cloud services

The real nuts and bolts of this future are the cloud and cloud services. So it wasn't surprising to find Azure front and centre at both Build 2012 and the latest SharePoint Conference. Microsoft clearly sees it as the centrepiece of its developer strategy.

At Build a series of challenges took developers from building simple cloud services, to developing Windows 8 Windows Store applications, showing them how to use Microsoft's cloud services as a backbone for connecting to third-party cloud APIs and Microsoft's own storage services.

Similarly, at the SharePoint Conference developers crowded into sessions where they were introduced to a new Office application model that runs business logic in cloud servers, with HTML5 front-ends built into Office applications. Talking to startups in Silicon Valley last week, Steve Ballmer's message was the same; Azure for the back-end with APIs connecting to apps on devices.

Post-PC? Maybe. PC-Plus? Perhaps. Three screens plus the cloud? As good a way of putting it as any.

Whatever you call it, however you describe it, it's clear the world has changed, and Microsoft with it. No wonder many of the influential developers at Microsoft have moved to Azure over the past few years — it's the future heart of the company.

The approach of Bigger Windows

The centre of gravity may not have fully shifted yet, but it's moving. Big Windows, as many insiders have called it, will be replaced by Bigger Windows, one that works at cloud scale to deliver information and services to smart end points.

Tomorrow's Microsoft will be built around Azure. That strategy means more and more collaboration between the different parts of the organisation as what were in the past standalone applications become services that are consumed by other services.

As Active Directory becomes a federated cloud service, working with Azure, with Office 365 and InTune, as well as in on-premises systems, it can't be the sole province of the server business, running on the timetable that suits the server team — it needs to be part of a wider ecosystem and a wider way of looking at the world.

Microsoft has traditionally been a company of companies, with distinct and separate business units that have had their own roadmaps and agendas. Part of the process of moving to the cloud has meant increased collaboration between those units — something that can be seen in the inclusion of a version of Office in Windows RT devices such as Surface, and in the Bing-powered applications that ship with every copy of Windows 8.

That collaboration is going to be a key feature of the new Microsoft, with its vision of bringing together hardware, software and services into a single platform, both for consumers and the enterprise.

Topics: Cloud, Microsoft, Windows

Simon Bisson

About Simon Bisson

Simon Bisson is a freelance technology journalist. He specialises in architecture and enterprise IT. He ran one of the UK's first national ISPs and moved to writing around the time of the collapse of the first dotcom boom. He still writes code.

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  • As always....

    ...very informative and, equally as important, unbiased article. Keep up the good work Simon.
  • Big Windows will be replaced by Bigger Windows!

    Good summation of Microsoft's strategy!
  • good job

    Well documented and informative. Thanks
  • Sinofsky's failure

    An important test in Microsoft quality control is that the software should be so complicated and confusing that users tear their hair out with exasperation.

    Sinofsky succeeded with himself but many of his test team still had a few tufts of hair left before release - therefore Sinofsky had to go.
  • Another excellent article

    Impressive writing yet again.

    I guess I am old fashioned, but I am nervous that I cannot garantee constant connction to the cloud services, and so will probably be left behind in my Thick client side Apps for some time yet, with intermittent access to cloud for some value added service.

    BTW I wish/ hope that Microsoft would drop the 'Windows' branding, now that Sinofsky gone. With the Metro UI, there are no Windows. Time for a branding reboot. How about Purple ?
  • sorry to nitpick

    It is professional to mention Representational State Transfer services as ReSTful Services instead of RESTful. Sorry.
    Ram U
  • Just follow the Pharma Industry

    That will give you a good idea.

    It will have to watch it's spend better, get used to being smaller, work harder to maintain market share and compete against generic competition.
    Alan Smithie
  • Someone finally said it.

    "We don't live in a world of perfect gigabit connectivity for desktop and mobile devices. Applications will always need to be able to run disconnected from the cloud, synchronising data when connected and being able to handle long-running asynchronous transactions."

    I've been waiting for someone to say this. If Google could get its Chromebooks to do this, I'd go for one in a second. Until then, I'm going to go Windows 8.
    • Two points

      Google is probably working on it.

      Some users only use their computers to access the web. If the web is unavailable, the ability to run apps remotely is of no value whatsoever. Their computers are still useless. My wife is case in point, and probably far from unique.
    • Chromebooks do this now, for many use cases

      Then go buy now (probably) ... GMail, GDocs do this now, permit offline work. As do the media players, for local files. Does that meet your needs? Depends on what use cases are important to you, of course.

      Individual app developers have to add the feature (using HTML5 offline storage APIs), so any particular app, it's up to the developer priorities when they'll make it work.
      • You can only use Chrome to access the internet

        You can't test cross browser compatibility, and you can't run Opera or Firefox. Never gonna use Chromebook untill you can
        Stephan Sevenyoln
        • cross browser compatibility

          Oh, you have problem, because you can't test cross browser compatibility? Seriously?
          If Chromebooks only come with Chrome, iPads only come with Safari and Surface RT only come with IE, then you still don't have any problem: buy/use the one that works for you.

          The "compare browsers" has always been an absurd task, as different browsers work quite differently on different platforms. Always been this way.
  • Insightful article

    It makes sense, and good to see Microsoft getting organized for the next decade. They have smart people and money, with the right focus they will continue to lead.

    I have observed good changes in security, integration and now with cutting edge UI. They are not following, but leading way to a new paradigm.

    Keep writing Simon, and thank you!
  • The brand is damaged beyond repair

    Windows Vista. Sidekick. Kin. Zune. Windows Mobile. Plays For Sure. Surface is merely the cherry on top of the Fail Sundae.

    Microsoft could release the sexiest new piece of hardware ever invented tomorrow, and it will tank because what Microsoft has proven again and again is that it is, at its core, a software company that makes an inexperienced hardware company.

    That is why Microsoft pays its employees bonuses for converting people from iPhone to Windows. That is why Microsoft pays other employees to troll comment boards and write piffle about Microsoft products.

    That is why Microsoft's stock costs $26 and why shareholders are calling for Ballmer's job.

    All too late. (PS - I live in Redmond. I grew up watching Microsoft grow up. The people I went to school with work or worked there. Some of my close friends still do work there, or were just recently laid off there. To a man, they'll tell you the company is dead and the fix is on. But Gates' house on Lake Washington is sweet.)
  • "PlaysForSure"

    I guess even Loverock (Hi! Hello there!!!) must admit that PlaysForSure wasn't Microsoft's finest hour, in retrospect.
    • Don't count on it.

      He works there for god's sake, he's as terrified for his job as toddbottom3 is. Believe me, based on the people I know who were laid off this summer, even after they're out they keep evangelizing. Fear is the engine that keeps people in line at Microsoft. Even if your name is Sinofsky.
  • So what will tomorrow's Microsoft look like?

    Smaller and humbler.

    Eventually. But there will be much wailing and gnashing of teeth (and loss of money and staff) on the way there.
  • There will be no Microsoft tomorrow

    First, the world might end just before this Christmas.

    But, even if the world doesn't end, there is no bright future for Microsoft. Not, since the day IBM finally admitted defeat to Apple and abandoned the PC business. Microsoft has always been clueless and hopeless.

    By the way, was this article an recital of the Microsoft's PR book... for I didn't see any discussion or comment as to Microsoft's plan for the future. Just promises. Of the kind "I can promise you things that nobody can do".
    • IBM admitted defeat to Apple?

      "since the day IBM finally admitted defeat to Apple and abandoned the PC business"

      When IBM sold their PC business in 2005, they already won against Apple. Macs were running PowerPC and Apple's market share was in the noise. IBM's PC business was profitable but they saw the handwriting on the wall, that PC hardware would become a cutthroat commodity market.
  • Listen to your customers !

    MS has to stop making new software (or changing existing software) that they want us to use whether we like it or not.