Has Microsoft transcended its midlife crisis?

Microsoft's Build conference brought a bevy of new product and developer technology announcements. Can they help the company turn the corner?
Written by Andrew Brust, Contributor

While the Day 1 keynote at Microsoft’s Build conference focused on flashy consumer-facing products, including Windows 8, Surface and Windows Phone, the Day 2 keynote was far more focused on developer-oriented technologies. 

Despite the apparent demotion to second billing, these more techie-directed announcements are a crucial part of Microsoft’s big picture.  Windows, Surface and Windows Phone will flop unless the developer technologies to support them are kept fresh, competitive, fun and powerful.

Bill of materials
So where does this leave Redmond in its bid to compete and survive in what some would call the post-PC era?  Microsoft’s position is significantly strengthened, in ways that are not necessarily obvious. Before we can get to this analysis, we need to summarize the announcements that were conveyed yesterday.  Here are the lion’s share of them:

  • Windows Azure, Microsoft’s cloud platform, has been updated in a number of areas.
    • Windows Azure Web Sites, the simple hosting model service offered on the Azure platform, now supports the newest version of the .NET Framework (4.5) as well as the Python programming language. 
    • A preview of the Azure Store was announced.  The Store permits the easy procurement of Azure-based third party technologies, and billing of those products unified with billing for Azure services themselves.
    • Windows Azure Mobile Services has been extended to support Windows Phone 8, making it easier for apps on Microsoft’s newest smartphone platform to use cloud-based data services, notifications, and so forth.  Support for Windows Phone 8 joins that of Windows 8 proper, and iOS.
    • The multiplayer infrastructure for the forthcoming version 4 of Microsoft’s Xbox juggernaut game franchise, Halo, is built on Windows Azure.
    • A revamped preview of HDInsight, the new brand for Microsoft’s forthcoming Hadoop Big Data technology (based on the Hortonworks Data Platform), is now available. So too is a single-node version of the technology that makes it much easier for developers to work with it and debug their code.
  • Team Foundation Service (TF Service), the hosted/cloud-based version of Microsoft’s Team Foundation Server (TFS) Application Lifecycle Management (ALM) tool set has emerged from preview status to reach General Availability.  TF Service includes agile project planning and management tools, version control, build automation, and continuous deployment automation.  In addition, Microsoft announced that TF Service is free for teams of five or fewer developers.
  • The Fall Preview of updates to Microsoft’s core Web development platform, ASP.NET, is available.  It includes features such as support for Web sockets with SignalR, enhancements to its RESTful services Web API, support for Windows Azure Active Directory and templates and tooling for building Web-based Single Page Applications (SPAs).

All together now
So what does all of this mean for Microsoft in the marketplace?  Let’s start with the obvious, a theme that also was evidenced in the Day 1 keynote: integration.  Microsoft is the only company to support a full, modern day computing stack that includes everything from server, client and mobile operating systems to a cloud platform that includes mobile and media services infrastructure, offerings for Platform as a Service (PaaS) and Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS), simple Web site hosting, database services, file storage, Big Data, and a marketplace for developers of products that use a few or many of these services.  That’s a big deal. But does it matter?

Developers, developers, other-platform developers
Before you answer, consider another angle to this story.  Microsoft, despite its deliberate and visible pivot toward the consumer, still maintains its developer orientation.  Its core integrated development environment product, Visual Studio, has been updated to take on development for all the new mobile platforms and form factors, but that’s to be expected.  What’s more intriguing is that it’s also been adapted to accommodate everything from mobile device notification infrastructure to MapReduce development for Hadoop, the ability to deploy solutions to the cloud and even use cloud-based services for hosting the source code control.  And beyond all the fancy, device-oriented stuff, Microsoft’s core Web platform is still being enhanced in substantive ways.

There’s also the cross-platform angle.  Windows Azure Mobile Services supports Apple’s iOS operating system, and the iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch devices that run it.  Windows Azure supports Java, PHP, Python and Node.js on its PaaS platform, Linux on its IaaS platform and numerous NoSQL databases, including MongoDB from MongoLab and CouchDB from Cloudant.  Its hosted ALM service, though pedigreed for Enterprise development, is free for small teams who otherwise would need to stick with GitHub and its ilk.  That said, Azure itself supports Git (and thus GitHub) in a number of scenarios.

Big challenges
Microsoft’s versatility and the comprehensiveness of its portfolio is evident.  The company has built, a lot, but who will come?  Will PHP developers and NoSQL enthusiasts come to Windows Azure just because they can?  Will app developers develop for a smartphone platform that even Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, in his Build Day 1 keynote, referred to as "small volume player?"  GitHub has Twitter-like popularity amongst developers.  Why would they leave it for something from Microsoft that incurs fees as soon as a sixth developer comes on board? 

Big Data is almost a completely Linux-based ecosystem.  Why would someone use C# and Windows to do Hadoop work, when everyone else in that world is using Java and Linux?  And with Amazon Web Services’ Elastic Compute Cloud the default choice for so many startups, what would motivate any of them to pick Windows Azure instead, despite the vertical integration it offers?

Back to the Enterprise
While many of these almost rhetorical questions would lead a number of Microsoft’s critics to say the company’s efforts are ill-fated and in vain, there are some other factors to consider.  Microsoft sells to the Enterprise.  These myriad new products, services and features are more designed for retention of that market than anything else.  Making inroads into new consumer and developer demographics is important too, but overall conquest there is unlikely. 

Microsoft’s goals are likely calibrated to that reality, even if they were not before.  The company is geared to selling and renewing multi-year Enterprise Agreements (EAs) to large Enterprise customers.  Widening its portfolio helps it stay on its EA game.  Having devices with true consumer credibility is a way to stem the tide of Apple’s entry into the Enterprise.  Supporting multiple mobile platforms and languages makes Microsoft relevant, even if just at the infrastructure level, in a Bring Your Own Device-obsessed world.  Hadoop on Windows is less a Cloudera killer than it is a key pillar of support for the Business Intelligence trinity (and license revenue engine) of SQL Server, SharePoint and Office.

Diagnosis, prognosis
Sometimes, when Microsoft makes an offensive and seemingly-Quixotic, move in one territory, it’s really about defending and expanding territory somewhere else.  That still doesn’t mean that Microsoft’s existential threats are trivial and conquered – not by a long shot.  But the scope of Redmond’s macro- and micro-level product and technology announcements made here at Build are representative of a comprehensive makeover of the company. 

Will the likes of Apple, Google and Amazon marginalize Microsoft and massively shrink its influence?  Possibly.  But the software giant is no longer sleeping.  It’s awake, it’s fighting and is in no way underestimating its competition.  Morale and internal politics are areas where the company still has a lot of work to do.  But competitive momentum, like that achieved in the last week, may help there too.

Editorial standards