Selling Microsoft's integration vision

Q&A: Microsoft's head of platform strategy claims Live will put users in charge of their computing experience

Charles Fitzgerald is the man charged with guiding the vision of Microsoft's platform policy and with ensuring that the company can deliver on some ambitious targets. As general manager for platform strategies he is currently focused on ensuring that the world understands the overall concepts behind Microsoft Live.

But while Fitzgerald will happily map out a vision of an all-embracing world that includes a plethora of devices across the computing universe — from servers to car management systems, from PDAs to television sets — don't expect to find any space for environments outside the Microsoft orbit. Open source? On-demand computing? Forget about it.

Fitzgerald talked about these and other concepts on a visit to London last week.

Q: You have a general-sounding job title and a wide-ranging remit. How do you see your role within Microsoft?
A: I am the general manager of platform strategies so I take a very broad purview of what we are doing. I look at how we can make the whole greater than the sum of the parts.

Microsoft has always been a platform company and it is therefore hard for us to do anything without taking a platform approach. By that we mean creating an eco-system around what we do. Typically that is based around developers, although there are other participants in different platform plays. The next frontier for the platform is a set of programmatic services and the eco-system that exists around that.

Microsoft is aggressively expanding in so many different areas, how do you get these different systems working together efficiently and with the right performance?
In some cases, efficiency may be the last thing you want to do. In a world of abundant processing power, you may choose to waste processing power in order to drive integration. In many cases the industry is moving from an era of scarcity: scarcity of processing, scarcity of disk. Bandwidth will probably continue to be the scarcest resource on a relative basis.

A lot of what people are doing now is almost wasting abundant resource. You may do calculations that you never take advantage of. You may speculatively cache things on disk that you never take advantage of, but the economics of hardware mean that it makes sense to go and do that.

You still need to deal with relative scarcity, though, so as we look at the relative rates of improvements in power, disk and bandwidth, it is bandwidth that is growing the slowest.

You'd rather waste CPU cycles in order to deliver a better experience or do a better job on the integration side, whatever is needed.

You've been working on Microsoft Live for some time?
We have had a pretty consistent vision of what the end-user experience would be like for the past five or six years, in terms of customer readiness and the underlying software infrastructure. Microsoft and the industry have spent a lot of the last five years building that new generation of software infrastructure.

So, in software services we have embarked on the migration to the .Net generation technology, helping the developer community move and adopt. They've done that — .Net is now the most widely used platform and toolset by developers.

But that was an internally focused objective for developers. We put the infrastructure in place; now it's time to really take advantage of that and deliver a new set of customer experiences.

What sort of customer experience?
The idea that captures it best is the idea of seamless experiences. We now live in a world where people have multiple PCs, multiple devices and each of those things have different applications and different services.

The fundamental premise around Windows Live is to put the user at the centre and get the technology to work together on their behalf and under their control. We are surrounded with...

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...multiple apps and multiple services and it just isn't that much fun to play the personal systems integrator.

The dream is: how do we get all of the technology in life to work together.

When you are working at developing this environment, do you get frustrated by the need to support other, competing environments?
Microsoft probably has the broadest footprint. Now it is evolving into the home — there's Media Centre, Tablets, Windows Mobile, Xbox, set-top boxes, IP-TV — and then we are investing in some of the emerging categories like software in your car.

There are other classes of devices that aren't running Windows software, tragically, and we are working on that. But to the degree that there are ways to make those devices part of our constellation you can say we are 60 to 80 percent there.

When one looks at Microsoft Live it looks like on-demand computing?
The real magic is that it will be a combination of client software, peer-to-peer interactions and cloud-based services — it is not any one of those, it is actually the mix of all of them. So when people are talking about on-demand, I don't know whether they are talking about the crazy, IBM approach: "I'm going to host everybody's mainframe and there is nobody in the market who knows how to run a mainframe. If we are going to preserve that business we are going to have to run it ourselves." Then my cable company talks about on-demand, when I can get video on-demand. It's not a super-useful term for me.

You have major upgrades to CRM and to your accounting software coming soon. Are these all being done within the Live environment?
Offices are expanding in three directions. There are offices with client software, which is what people are most familiar with. We've added small business accounting, things like Groove and there are some new client apps that have shown up. We have also added a huge investment in Office server capabilities — in the current generation that is SharePoint, which adds everything from business intelligence to workflow to content management. The third direction is services, like Office Live.

Making all those things work together is the goal. There are integration points with all these things, Office Live, for example, is designed to work with Office small business accounting — you can use Office Live service to share your accounting information with your accountant. So the footprint of what people think of as Office is just going to grow and grow.

Where do you see open source within this, in terms of your customers — some of whom will be using it?
Open source is really a developer phenomenon that speaks to infrastructure. With Windows Live and Office Live we are talking about customer experiences, whether it is a personal set of services for Windows Live or things that are aimed at helping people grow and manage their businesses. I doubt if you talk to users of Office Live that they have any interest in dorking around with source code. This is about customer experience rather than developer experience so it's largely irrelevant.