Is Microsoft still the CIO's best friend?

The relationship between the CIO and Microsoft goes back decades - but that doesn't mean that either side can be complacent.

When Microsoft makes a move, people sit up and take notice. The tech giant recently provided detailed information on a series of upcoming releases and updates, such as operating system Windows 10, personal assistant Cortana, and head-mounted computer HoloLens.

But as well as Microsoft there are a number of other tech companies including Apple, Google, and more who also want to build a strong relationship with the IT department. So, is Microsoft still the CIO's best friend? And, perhaps more to the point, was it ever?

The cornerstone of corporate IT

Tullow Oil CIO Andrew Marks says that, for many CIOs, Microsoft is best viewed as a business necessity: even firms that are using an alternative to Office - like Google Apps for Work, for example - will still find themselves wedded to the Redmond-based firm's software.

Marks says there are very few organisations that are not reliant on Microsoft for at least some back-end processes. Partners and customers, for example, will still use Microsoft software, so CIOs must focus on interoperability.

Read this

The strange life, death and rebirth of the CIO and what it means for the future of IT

The way companies buy, build and use technology is changing rapidly, which means the teams that build it and run it will need to change too.

Read More

However, a reliance on Microsoft is no excuse for complacency on the part of the vendor, and at a strategic level, Marks says he believes Microsoft increasingly recognises that simply selling software licenses is no longer enough.

In a connected world, more and more businesses can see that a cloud-based model offers flexibility, particularly in terms of procurement. "The traditional licensing model is so complex and CIOs want much more transparency from their suppliers," says Marks.

The flexibility theme resonates with former CIO Ian Cox, now a consultant at Axin. He recognises that Microsoft products have formed the cornerstone of most corporate IT environments for many years. For that reason, Cox says it would probably be fair to say that the company has been one of, if not the most, important vendor to CIOs during that time.

An uneasy relationship

But the relationship has not always been easy. Cox says there is not always a direct correlation between the importance of a vendor and the quality of its relationship with the CIO - and this has certainly been the case for Microsoft.

"Licensing has probably been the single biggest reason why CIOs would not count Microsoft as a friend," he says.

"The fact that there are specialists whose sole purpose is to interpret and explain how these licensing models work tells you all you need to know about the complexity, mystery, and confusion that exists around the myriad of Microsoft licence agreements."

Even more frustratingly, Cox says that CIOs are often none the wiser as to which licensing model represents best value for the organisation after spending time with these specialists.

Yet Cox and most of his peers continued to invest. "You had no choice," he says. "The cost and effort to move to non-Microsoft solutions is also hard to justify, and in some instances just not feasible. So as a CIO you were left between the proverbial rock and hard place, at the mercy of your vendor. That is never a good place to be."

There is good news: Cox is pleased to hear that Microsoft is reviewing its licensing agreements, while recognising that it remains to be seen whether these changes will create a more customer-friendly and understandable model for technology chiefs. "And given the years of frustration CIOs have had to endure, it is going to take a while and probably a lot more changes for Microsoft to move itself up to friend status with most IT leaders," he says.

Doug May, regional IT manager for aircraft manufacturing company Messier-Bugatti-Dowty, also suggests the association between the CIO and Microsoft is more a marriage of convenience.

"If all your customers and suppliers use Microsoft, then you have a limited range of options," he says. "There are alternatives on the market now, such as Google Apps, because of the drive towards the cloud. But if all your partners use Microsoft, or a newer version of their applications and operating system, then you can have integration concerns and you risk losing a competitive advantage."

New opportunities for new services

Looking to the future some of Microsoft's in-development software included in Windows 10 - expected to arrive this year - could re-energise the relationship with CIOs, as well as some products that might have traditionally be seen as consumer-only plays.

Working Links CIO Omid Shiraji says his firm, like so many other organisations, still uses Windows and Office.

"You won't get fired for buying Microsoft, but I'm not sure they're currently helping to find solutions to the real challenges that businesses face - and CIOs actually need Microsoft's help right now," he says. Shiraji is interested in the potential of Windows 10 and suggests the operating system, and some of Microsoft's other technologies, could be relevant in the future.

"Cortana is really interesting," he says. "Contextualised voice software can be a really powerful tool but it needs to be more than a gimmick if it's going to take hold in the enterprise. Until wearable technology really takes off, attempts to make the most of voice software are probably going to be hindered."

Shiraji believes gaming system Xbox One - with its focus on interactivity, collaboration and experience - represents a step in the right direction. "Personally, I'm keen to think about how you can use a platform like Xbox One to deliver services to customers," he says.

"It's a really powerful piece of kit that's in a lot of people's homes. We're really only at the start of the journey in terms of finding new ways to deliver services to customers. And that's where Microsoft should be directing their investment."

More CXO stories