Monday, June 28, 2010

The Decline and Fall of the Microsoft Empire

If you read the technology press even occasionally you'll have read at least one article in the past twelve months lamenting (or trumpeting) the decline of Microsoft. One of the better recent examples of the kind is here, but the general thrust of all the articles is that Microsoft is stagnant, overly reliant on revenues from "yesterday" technologies like the Windows desktop OS and Office application suites and that it has missed the boat in essential areas like web search, mobile computing and smartphones. The recent news that Apple's market valuation has overtaken Microsoft's for the first time only seems to highlight the situation.

Is there a real issue here, though, or is this just a case of bandwagon-jumping? What does it mean for those of us who run our businesses on Microsoft software, or who, like myself, have built their careers on their expertise in understanding and implementing Microsoft-based solutions?

The answer is, of course, yes and no. It depends. Microsoft is simply not a player in any meaningful sense in the technology spaces that make newspaper headlines. When Windows Phone 7 ships, I doubt there will be any shops opening at midnight with queues outside. The present and future of smartphones lies, for the time being, with Google's Android OS and the iPhone. The iPad, despite its essential limitations, may prove the catalyst for a new generation of tablet devices that actually do change the way we access digital data (and what a shame it is that the truly innovative Microsoft Courier concept device will never see the light of day).

The charge is also levelled that the desktop OS paradigm is a thing of the past, that the next generation of Windows will be the last. Disk-munching memory hungry function and framework-heavy operating systems will supposedly disappear to be replaced by light shell systems capable of little more than launching a browser, which won't matter because application functionality will be online and all our data will reside in the cloud anyway.

The truth is that while Microsoft has missed the boat in a number of important areas, the company and the Microsoft ecosystem isn't going anywhere in our working lifetimes. The businesses of the Western world run on Windows servers and use products like Exchange Server and SQL Server to manage their information storage and flows. These fundamental processes don't make for glamorous presentations and product launches and newspaper columns, but they're the backbone of everyday commercial IT. The development tools and environments provided by Microsoft and the depth of technical documentation supporting them are unmatched by any other vendor.

Again, these aren't the sort of concepts that get pulses racing in the technology press. I think that Microsoft is going to assume a position roughly analogous to that of IBM; few magazine covers in the future but a large behind-the-scenes player in the enterprise and the back-office, with (probably) a reduced presence in the consumer and small-business marketplaces.

Gloating over the death of Microsoft is misguided and misplaced. A strong and healthy Microsoft is good for everyone in IT, in the same way that the return of Apple and the rise of Google have forced everyone else to raise their game.