Microsoft: The next quarter century

Twenty-five years gone and Bill G and Steve B remain at the helm. Meet four faces attempting to pilot the Redmond juggernaut into the next millennium
Written by Mary Jo Foley, Senior Contributing Editor

Do you know Brian MacDonald?

Unless you watch Microsoft like a hawk, chances are MacDonald's name doesn't ring a bell. But, as the newly minted senior vice president of the company's subscription service division, MacDonald is going to play a key role in determining how Microsoft will fit into the technology picture over the next quarter century.

MacDonald is not the only newcomer to the who's who list of Microsoft's next generation of movers and shakers. While chairman Bill Gates and chief executive Steve Ballmer undeniably continue to make their presence felt throughout the company, Microsoft's future is far more dependent on a handful of lesser-known executives.

Microsoft's PC-era heyday -- led by the likes of former Windows and Internet Explorer champion Brad Silverberg and Office and Interactive Media chief Pete Higgins -- is over. But Microsoft's next incarnation, evolving under such managers as .Net lieutenant Rick Belluzzo, wireless maven Paul Gross and troubleshooter Brian Valentine, is only just beginning.

These new Microsoft managers have their work cut out for them.

They are expected to push Microsoft into new arenas, such as wireless and software hosting, where the company has little or no proven track record. While Microsoft has vanquished many of its old-school competitors, such as IBM, Novell and Lotus, on the desktop operating system and office-suite fronts, it has an equally fierce group of rivals on the newer Internet access, server OS, PDA, e-book, TV and wireless fronts.

These new execs need to be able to dissect the strategies of an entirely different set of players, including America Online/Time Warner, Red Hat, Palm and the like.

At the same time, Microsoft's next-generation managers need to combat the perception that the company is just not as cutting edge as it used to be. In the past couple of years, Microsoft has lost a lot of its lustre as a result of the ongoing Department of Justice antitrust trial and some very publicised departures of longtime company officials.

"All the good people are gone from Microsoft," said one developer and beta tester who has worked closely with the company for over a decade. "Microsoft's now a good, stable company to work with, and that's bad. The exciting stuff is all happening elsewhere."

Nearly two years ago, Ballmer, who at that time was new to the president's role, warned Microsoft management that the company had to take some radical steps to get back on track. While the company has followed through on some of these ideas, such as requiring managers to call on customers themselves, Microsoft hasn't made good on some of its plans to respond more nimbly to the rapidly changing technology realm.

But Microsoft's rising stars claim to know what needs fixing and, more importantly, how to go about fixing it. Here are where four of Microsoft's next-generation leaders want Microsoft to go today -- and tomorrow.

Brian MacDonald: Mr Behind-the-Scenes for subscription services. Microsoft sees dollar signs -- many of the financial analysts who follow the company see red.

Devising a strategy that will allow Microsoft to add subscription services to its packaged-software and software-licence revenue streams -- without upsetting the apple cart -- is the job of Brian MacDonald.

The 11-year Microsoft veteran has been a behind-the-scenes guy ever since Microsoft bought his company in 1989 and turned its technology into the product currently known as Microsoft Project. After that, MacDonald started and led the group that built Microsoft's Outlook email client.

In more recent years, MacDonald has been part of Microsoft's stealth NetDocs team. NetDocs is a Microsoft effort aimed at Internet-enabling desktop applications, with a focus on authoring, viewing and managing online information.

As a result of Microsoft's early August reorganisation, MacDonald reports to Microsoft veteran Bob Muglia, who is now group vice president of the .Net Services Group. Muglia's group is charged with developing software, subscription services and a new .Net user interface.

MacDonald's mission will be to help develop and deliver the set of "premium" services that will ride on top of the base set of .Net services, which Microsoft will likely provide either cheaply or for free.

Whereas calendaring and Internet authentication will be part of the base .Net platform, services such as Office add-ons, Web storage and higher-level communications will constitute this premium class. (A third category of services, which Microsoft refers to as device services, will be tailored to specific handhelds, cell phones and other platforms.)

Group vice president Belluzzo explained premium services this way: "Today, most of the MSN services are funded by merchants. Things like storage, better communications and other more productivity-type services -- not just consumery types of apps -- will be subscription services."

MacDonald, for his part, was engaged in more stealth projects and unavailable for comment.

Brian Valentine: Mr Fix It. Microsoft may be remaking itself as a services company, but that hardly means Windows is history.

In fact, Windows is the cornerstone of Microsoft's .Net strategy, company officials claim, as it is the foundation upon which all of Microsoft's .Net products and services will ride.

These days, Windows is seemingly on a fast track. Windows 2000 shipped in February -- the first beta of its Windows 2001 successor, codenamed Whistler, is due out in October. Windows 2002, aka Blackcomb, is just around the corner.

And if anyone can take the credit for whipping the Windows team into shape in recent months, it's the flamboyant Brian Valentine, senior vice president of the Windows division.

A 13-year Microsoft veteran, Valentine took charge of the Windows 2000 development at the end of 1998. He grabbed the reins from Moshe Dunie, the head of the NT 4.0 test team and Windows 98 development, who just couldn't pull Windows 2000 over the goal line. Valentine was accustomed to championing unwieldy projects. He formerly headed Microsoft's application server division, as well as the development team that built Exchange Server.

Valentine currently reports to Microsoft Group vice president Jim Allchin. By the deadline for this story, Allchin was still not back from a three-plus-month vacation. If he fails to return to Microsoft -- and becomes part of the pattern of top execs who leave on vacation or sabbatical never to return -- Valentine is likely to rise to the occasion and become the new Windows head honcho.

Valentine didn't respond to ZDNet News by deadline.

Go to Part II/ Paul Gross & Rick Belluzzo

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