I’ve noticed a subtle change in the tech marketplace over the past few years. I believe the Operating System market has been / is fragmenting, statistics about the number of college students that are using Macs is pretty shocking to me. No one was using Macs when I was in college, I don’t recall seeing even one. These students are the next generation of computer users, and they are all computer users. Even though I don’t personally agree from a technical / use perspective, it appears Microsoft has made a major misstep with Vista. (I have been using it since some of the pretty early available MSDN betas.) This has opened a door that I believe Microsoft would have rather had stayed closed. Along these lines, there is some pretty good movement with the open source OS platforms. Dell and others are selling machines with Ubuntu pre-installed as a general option. These things weren’t going on just a few years ago, or at least to any real degree. It was always mainly Microsoft. In addition, Microsoft’s other major franchise, the Office suite, has been challenged by other, often much cheaper or free, competition like Open Office, and Google Docs. What’s more, the Microsoft Zune, which I own and think is an awesome device, hasn’t even really dented the mp3 player marketshare of Apple’s Ipod (last number I remember hearing was Zune = 3-5%, I might be wrong). The XBOX, although also very awesome, has been a real money looser (until lately?). Don’t get me wrong, they’re still making money hand over fist.
So I’ve been wondering what the future looks like for Microsoft. With the apparent fragmentation in the OS game, (which many will dispute I’m sure) it seems the ubiquity of the ‘Windows Desktop’ (call it whatever you want XP, Vista, 7), may have a limited future (perhaps 5-10 years still I think). Other players will probably come into this game in a non-trivial way. This concerns me because I’ve invested a ton of time over the years learning the Microsoft stack, the last few on .NET particularly. If .NET == ‘Windows Desktop’ then that investment looses value. (In this vane, I’m really glad to see things like Mono coming up which take .NET onto other platforms like Linux, etc. Also, glad that Silverlight is bringing the .NET skillset out to so many new places.) Recently, a major new future direction for Microsoft was announced at the PDC. They announced a new platform called ‘Windows Azure’.
While, from a cursory glance, this looks similiar to other platforms that have recently come out of Redmond (think WPF, WCF, WF….and on and on), I think there is something more to it. They are looking for their next franchise, Microsoft sees that its core franchises are, or will soon be, under major attack for the reasons mentioned above. The marketplace is simply evolving. We know how Microsoft made zillions with those francises, they sold licenses to run on-premise software. ‘Windows Desktop’ runs on your desktop machine, Office likewise. Individuals and businesses shelled out major money for the software that they would run. Windows Azure is presented as an ‘Operating System for the Cloud’ – it doesn’t run on your machine (in deployment / real world). People (users) don’t generally pay for the software they run in the cloud. They pay for the utility they get. Think music you buy from Amazon, think photos you store online to share with your family, even think about paying your bills online. There’s software under there – you don’t pay for it as such but someone does. Further, there’s hardware under there. Amazon pays a ton, in hardware, management & power costs to make its marketplace available. Your bank pays a boatload for operating its datacenter. These costs are actually prohibitive in some cases for businesses of certain sizes. Its hard to scale and do so quickly when you need to (you get Digged or something).
Ok, back on point. So what is Windows Azure. Well, its a platform for doing these things. With Azure, it looks like Microsoft is starting in a new direction, one with many of the same facets of its massively successful ‘Windows Desktop’ franchise. ‘Windows Desktop’ has been successful not because it, itself, is that great, but largely due to the fact that it has been the choice platform for people who MAKE applicaitons. It is the ease of application development and therefore the diversity of said application base that has propelled ‘Windows Desktop’ for so long. Windows Azure looks to be largely the same thing in the new world of online apps and services. It is a platform that will seem familiar to the army of Microsoft developers that want / need to enter the ‘connected game’ in a big way. It may not even be the ‘best’ (some people are religious about Macs), Amazon has been doing similiar things, other people might have a ‘better’ platform, but what Microsoft brings is the developers. So how are they going to make their zillions off this platform like they did off the ‘Windows Desktop’? They have not announced exact details yet on the price structure, but it seems like they are going to be monetizing the hardware, the software and the management (which is also, in part, software.) These are all things you have to pay for anyway to get in the game – so why pay Microsoft? Well, some of these are hard – as I mentioned, its hard to scale quickly. Its hard to have reliable storage. You have to know things / hire people. This is expensive if you have to do it yourself – especially up front. You can pay as you go. Also advantageous for Microsoft here, as with ‘Windows Desktop’ is that there is lock-in. They offer the platform you build on. The platform isn’t just software anymore, its the whole scale of a datacenter. I was wondering how Microsoft was going to challenge the Googles of the world. Now we know.