Much has been made of the fact that Ray Ozzie's big vision revolves around services. Today we're getting some screenshots of the Office Live Workplace. The question is whether they will be cross-platform and how Microsoft can compete in a fairly crowded space. It's been interesting to watch Microsoft move into services and bring their huge brand to bear on a young, interesting space.
While Microsoft is enabling their developer population they are also creating a platform that they themselves can build on.Because I work for Adobe I'm always a little wary of hypothesizing about the competition so I want to make it clear that I think this is a good thing, both for Microsoft and rich internet applications in general. I'm also not naive enough to think that Microsoft will give up the dual cash cows of Windows and Office. But the fact that Microsoft is 1) building out on the Mac and 2) helping with the Linux port of a platform that will include the Common Language Runtime, .NET support and rich video experiences that all used to be reasons to adopt the Windows platform is telling. The skeptical out there would look at Internet Explorer's Mac support or Windows Media's support and call shenanigans, but I don't think that's the case.
Microsoft has created a very powerful and compelling platform for the many .NET developers out there today. When Silverlight 1.1 is released it will mean that you can write cross platform C# code and tie it to a very rich experience with XAML. But while Microsoft is enabling their developer population they are also creating a platform that they themselves can build on. Trying to build a services business that only runs on Windows machines is good for revenue in the short term but won't let them compete with other companies who aren't tied to an operating system as a platform. Sliverlight breaks those chains for Microsoft and gives them an opening to deploy a robust services stack on a cross-platform runtime.
Think about the brand power and development savvy that Microsoft controls. Imagine a world where an RIA version of Office runs on top of Silverlight for Windows, Mac and PC users with your data being stored on Microsoft's servers. The reputation that Microsoft has in the business and enterprise world gives them a huge head start in rolling out RIAs that can infiltrate those verticals. I don't think anyone has done a good job of selling the RIA mantra to the business application world. We're making inroads, but there aren't a lot of great examples of business-class rich internet applications that have gotten traction. Microsoft can close that loop better than most while giving flexibility in an increasingly OS-agnostic world.
10 years ago this would have been inconceivable. Windows was always the driver, always the center of attention. Silverlight is a significant departure from that thinking and I don't believe the timing of it's rise and Ray Ozzie's increasing responsibilities are a coincidence. Ray understands the new market and I'm pretty sure he sees Silverlight as a viable platform to make his dreams reality. There are still values of Windows to be sure. Windows Presentation Foundation, Visual Studio and Microsoft's other development/design tools are all Windows only which will continue to drive revenue. But the new class of applications based around services, things like Live Writer, Live Messenger, Live Mail, and lightweight versions of Office could all run in the browser and compete very well against Google's offerings. The richness of Silverlight gives Microsoft a competitive edge and I hope will help prove that customers want usable richness in their software.
People seem to agree that there is some potential in this whole RIA thing but there is still a lot to prove about the value of experience. As more companies roll out great services that can leverage an RIA front end the closer we'll be to critical mass. Then the floodgates can open.