Can Microsoft put their new enterprise jigsaw together?

The changing face of what businesses need is challenging to incumbent suppliers. Meanwhile, a new generation of innovation is flowering around simplicity.
Written by Oliver Marks, Contributor


These are interesting times in the enterprise world: Microsoft appear to have most of the jigsaw pieces on the table to assemble reasonably credible 'post pc' offerings, despite sticking to their Windows branding with post 'windows' user interfaces.

Workday meanwhile are doing a great job of simplifying the traditional IT enterprise octopus with their cost effective prime time cloud offerings, primed with IPO funds to deliver on pain free product updates and improvements - the promise of cloud computing.

Windows is now an anachronism, caught in the vacuum between the QWERTY keyboard and the mobile revolution.

Around the time that 'social media' jumped the shark last year, becoming overloaded with everyone with a digital pulse on the planet and all their multiple free publishing accounts and communication channels, lots of software vendors firmed up their marketing rhetoric in attempts to corner the market in social collaboration.

Like the old 90's Staples marketing strap line '"Yeah, we've got that", the old guard vendors have rolled all sorts of 'social' attributes into their currently fashionable 'flow of work' processes, lifting anything they see in the market that appears attractive to their customers or prospects.

Microsoft, arguably, hugely overpaid for enterprise social network firm Yammer, presumably to ride their perceived momentum, and SAP are digesting and attempting to blend in their Successfactors cloud 'People Performance' tools purchase for their process-oriented audience. Pure play community collaboration & social software solutions vendor Jive software have hit middle age, and a whole raft of Software as a Service firms are vying to be the platform that organizations manage projects and interact on, from big fish Salesforce all the way down to the minnows swimming alongside and seeking to serve small business.

The fall conference season is in full swing, with many software firms choosing to put on closed events where they claim exclusive creation rights for now commonly understood ideas around collaboration and the power of digital social interactions inside companies and across their customer base.

I call the rubber chicken dinner circuit of futurist speakers at these events 'The Mile High Club', which usually gets a laugh with clients: lots of sexy promise in the books they are usually showcasing about big data/social media/connections/disruption etc but short on the specifics or practicalities on how you actually make any of these high-flying ideas actionable in the context of specific business problems.

So where's the continuum from the innovation which was so visible at the height of the 2.0 boom before the 2008 global financial crisis hit? What's happened to the much vaunted serendipitous subtleties that the early days of newly connected social networkers discovered? The inevitable coarsening effect of commercializing Enterprise 2.0/social business/enterprise thinking and the relentless 'wisdom of the loud' on social networks, along with a weary familiarity with the byways of the digital social web, are sure signs of the end of an era.

The cosily symbiotic relationship between old guard software, integration firms and the big analyst mill's judged popularity contests has defanged the last wave of challengers to the enterprise thrones, co-opted their messaging, and packaged up the possibilities into sellable tool integration projects. Now fragmented into various platforms and parent child relationships, it's an attempt at business as usual for the way enterprise vendors have always operated -- except it's not -- because the creaky old enterprise infrastructure is under pressure as never before.

The challenge today for the real people who actually work in real companies and sell things is in discerning what is a rear guard action by the old guard to protect their flanks.

The challenge today for the real people who actually work in real companies and sell things is in discerning what is a rear guard action by the old guard to protect their flanks, and where the new generation of ideas and challengers are coming from. Once all the mile high keynote fly over strategic ideas and homilies are over, people have to attempt to make this stuff work; and as is so often the case, "innovation" isn't so much "out of the box" think different genius as it is getting around the shortcomings of current tools to get the job done -- which is what Enterprise 2.0 was originally all about before it got consumed by digital tools marketers.

There is definitely a new wave of innovation underway that is outside the cosy confines of the way the enterprise world has been carved up - and somewhat outside the solipsistic world of venture capital and their digital broadcast friends.

Entities like Crushpath ('the new way for sales teams to track and organize their deals') get back to the basics of simplifying the way things get done. STOIC, who I mentioned in my previous post, are striving to let anyone develop a cloud application as easily as using a spreadsheet as examples. (I haven't spoken to anyone at Crushpath for months so have no idea if they are about to acquired or otherwise assimilated/neutralized into a larger ecosphere). Whether these new generation firms take root by simplifying an increasingly complex world for their customers will largely depend on how well the old guard execute their plans.

Microsoft are the old guard giant that's particularly interesting right now. On paper, they have their mojo back, launching the Surface tablet device that appears to be primarily a clever play to perpetuate use of their hugely lucrative Office franchise in the post pc era. The Sharepoint conference is next week, where there are sure to be announcements with Yammer and Skype, and my developer colleagues have had nothing but good things to say about Azure and the recent Build conference.

IBM, which has tentacles deep into many enterprises from archaic domino databases and Notes email up to state of the art big data and analytics, used to be the safe bet in the enterprise - nobody ever got fired for buying IBM back when they ushered in the PC era. Buying a trusted brand works well and inspires a sense of security - until the trust is eroded. IBM are today predominantly a services company, having had to retreat from their hardware base in the 90's in the face of rapidly changing times. 

Microsoft are making all the right noises and buying all the right companies to remain relevant to their vast client base, who work every day with documents, email and digital filing with Microsoft tools (and increasingly ftp storage like Dropbox, Box and others, as easy and logical as a box of floppy diskette storage was way back when). Many customers will sleepwalk into a next generation of Microsoft, assuming it was all invented there and oblivious to any outside innovation, assuming Redmond execute well.

The Office cash cow and Sharepoint digital filing cabinets remain the company crown jewels, and happily the bean counters in most companies use their tools and therefore understand why they pay for them for everyone else.

Windows is another matter, though.  The IBM PC era freed enterprises from the tyranny of IT mainframe bottleneck, and the Windows graphical user interface freed users from the green screen and let them do all sorts of amazing things with their personal tools and printer. Fast forward to today and the cloud companies doing it right, like Workday, are cost effectively emancipating enterprises from the tyranny of IT, solving lots of problems with tools and processes that are a pleasure to use.

Windows is now an anachronism, caught in the vacuum between the QWERTY keyboard and the mobile revolution. The split personality of the 'new' Microsoft (and weird shift from Metro naming to Windows 8) to serve both the old IT world and the new mobile evolution sends very mixed messages to the cubicle-dwelling masses who are awake to the possibilities and conveniences of smartphones and iPads.

Windows isn't 'windows' on a tiled user interface mobile device, and the Windows phone further confuses things in user minds. Windows is a venerable brand known around the world. The question is: will it extend into the new generation or become synonymous with a previous generation of usability?


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