Google's and Microsoft's very different approaches to computing, and the history behind them, beg the question, is it time for Microsoft to reinvent itself if it wants to avoid becoming the computing equivalent of fossil fuels?
I had a couple of very enlightening conversations with representatives from Microsoft and Google back-to-back on Friday. While our conversations were focused on their educational initiatives, some of which I'll be featuring tomorrow on ZDNet Education, the more interesting aspects of the interviews actually related to their entirely different approaches to the Web, the cloud, and computing in general. These approaches, and the history behind them, beg the question, is it time for Microsoft to reinvent itself if it wants to avoid becoming the computing equivalent of fossil fuels?
I know, the La Brea Tar Pits don't actually contain any dinosaurs...but is it time for a shift in strategy for Microsoft?
Microsoft has been around for a while. It was founded in 1975, the year before I was born, making it truly ancient in computer years. This isn't a bad thing, in and of itself. Experience counts for a lot and, if Windows 7, Windows Server 2008, and Office 2007 (with 2010 on its way) show us anything, it's that Microsoft has learned a lot of lessons and can crank out some pretty impressive desktop productivity software. True, Server 2008 isn't desktop software (unless you count what it can do in terms of Terminal Services and desktop virtualization), but Active Directory and much of its software stack directly support desktop computing environments.
Google, on the other hand, is a relative baby. Founded in 1998, the company was created for, by, and through the Web. As Google's Jeff Keltner told me the other day, the company has built an entire Web-based infrastructure throughout the company. They have a "single way" of thinking about how they do business with a single "back-end and front-end model" that they leverage both internally and externally in the variety of products that grew from their original search business.
If you talk to the folks at Google, Microsoft is shoehorning a dying desktop-centric strategy into a Web-enabled world. Talk to the folks at Microsoft and Google is shoving cloud strategies down the throats of enterprise customers who need far more control than Google Apps can offer.
So who's right? And more importantly, who's right long-term? Right now, it seems clear that they both are. Microsoft has a robust, mature software ecosystem that can manage an enterprise's desktop experiences quite handily. Increasingly, with Live Web Apps, Sharepoint Live, Outlook Live, etc., users can access their documents and messaging in very familiar forms from the Web. The best of both worlds, right?
But what if the desktop really is dead? What if the desktop computing experience will be irrelevant in a year? Two years? What if Google is right? Google doesn't need an ecosystem of integrated products that also integrate with the cloud because all of its services were built from the ground up to work in the cloud. The desktop was not part of Google's core strategy; they're simply able to leverage their massive Web presence and huge data center capabilities to potentially eliminate the need for a desktop for many users. In fact, again according to Keltner, Google now focuses in terms of Apps on how best to satisfy the needs of their customers, rather than replicating what Microsoft can do.
Many of these questions have been asked before:
Is the desktop dead?
Is the OS dead?
Is Microsoft a dinosaur?
How many of your users really need Office in all its glory?
Can the cloud actually work for the enterprise?
Now, though, as Microsoft pushes hard to keep up in the cloud and maintain its desktop advantage, while Google begins to look like the 1000 pound gorilla taking over the Internet, it seems as though the game might be changing. I think that it's premature to assume that Microsoft will follow the dinosaurs into extinction. Not only did the dinosaurs dominate the earth for millions of years before mammals pulled a slick bit of Darwinism, but as any 2nd-grader will tell you (mine most definitely included), dinosaurs are super cool. So are many of Microsoft's current products.
However (and this is a really big however), Google's products are maturing at an incredible pace, perhaps because they eat their own dogfood and run their own enterprise on Google technologies. Here's the real question you have to ask yourself: Is it worth investing in a Microsoft ecosystem now? Or does Microsoft need to fundamentally shift directions if it hopes to keep attracting new customers in a world that is increasingly turning to the Web for everything it does?
All of Microsoft's Live offerings are a compelling start. My money isn't on either Microsoft or Google; it's on the Web and the company who can leverage web technologies in the way that is most meaningful to users. Right now, the advantage seems to be going to Google, but this is hardly over. Microsoft, as well as plenty of other cloud players like IBM and Amazon will not be conceding any time soon.