Microsoft Kool-Aid and the cloud

Microsoft's Gianpaolo Carraro wonders if too much Kool-Aid has made him a believer in software-plus-services. I say yes. And I'm wondering if Microsoft could learn a lesson from railroad history.
Written by Phil Wainewright, Contributor

Responding to my recent assertion that Microsoft's software-plus-services mantra is bunkum, Gianpaolo Carraro — the company's chief thinker about SaaS architecture — wonders if he's drunk too much Kool-Aid.

The answer, my friend, is 'yes'. Here's Gianpaolo's justification for still wanting to buy an Office licence and run Microsoft's productivity software on his PC at home:

"... as far as user interaction is concern[ed], I am a big believer in bringing it as close to the user as possible. Why would I ever want the cloud between me and my work?"

I totally agree with this point of view. But instead of going to all the trouble of buying a licence, installing the software locally and then having to maintain it, why not let the cloud bring the application to your desktop whenever you need it? That's why Adobe developed AIR, why Google has Google Gears, and why Microsoft has developed Silverlight (in addition to investing in Softricity's desktop virtualization software).

All that Kool-Aid that Gianpaolo is drinking gives him the illusion that the cloud is something that exists out there, beyond the existing desktop and enterprise infrastructure. In today's connected world, the cloud is everywhere, and it allows software providers to retain responsibility for running and maintaining software wherever it needs to be in the connected cloud to deliver applications and services to users.

All of this still needs software. I'm sure that many enterprises will choose to be software providers for certain elements of their own operations. There will still be a market for the products of software companies like Microsoft. But what the average person sees will be services, delivered and managed via the Web. Not software.

Let me take another stab at explaining what's wrong with Microsoft's software-plus-services formulation. In a famous essay in Harvard Business Review, Theodore Levitt once wrote that the great railroad companies of the nineteenth century subsequently went into decline "because they assumed themselves to be in the railroad business rather than in the transportation business."

Would it have helped the railroads if they'd gone around saying, "A lot of people are talking about transportation as the next big thing, but we believe it'll always be a railroad-plus-transportation world"? Maybe it would have helped them make the transition, but at the end of the day, history tells us that transportation ended up being a lot more than railroads. The same is true of software and services today. Software looks more important right now because there's a lot of it about. It's a big industry. But services will become dominant in the future, and software will become merely a part of what powers them.

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