Microsoft is in a state of transition in many ways right now, from its new client operating system to its huge emphasis on pumping up its Windows Azure cloud services. Disarray always creates some dirty laundry, however. Here are five things Microsoft wouldn't want you or your CIO to know about what's going on in Redmond.
1. If You're Not Moving to the Cloud, You're Not Getting a First-Class Release Experience.
Sure, Microsoft tout its ability to deliver both world-class products designed for on-premises datacenters as well as services that integrate those same products, along with their expertise in running huge, scaled-up datacenters—but the truth is that the company is cloud first now. Large product releases, such as the next version of SharePoint, will be cloud-first and premises-second. Features will be available only on the service version of the software and won't make it into the first release of the installable product. They may be added later via a service pack or an update rollup—or, then again, they may not.
At the other end of the spectrum is the cloud-based Office 365. Interesting features and capabilities are being rolled out across that suite of subscription services, and recently prices were even cut by about 20% on most of the service levels, including the level that gets you the most current Office license available. This would include the new version, Office 15, releasing later this year, too. When was the last time you saw your Software Assurance on-premises licensing bill go down when the level of service stayed the same?
2. Microsoft Wishes It Were a Consumer-Centric Business.
To understand this point, consider the brouhaha around Windows RT. More popularly known as Windows on ARM, or WoA, Windows RT is the company's attempt to have its client Windows system on system-on-a-chip devices such as tablets. Microsoft has stated publicly, "[A]lthough the ARM-based version of Windows does not include the same manageability features that are in 32-bit and 64-bit versions, businesses can use these power-saving devices in unmanaged environments."
Corporate IT departments were looking to Microsoft to produce a tablet OS that supported integration with their existing desktop and device security policies, not to release a one-off product that only offers management benefits if you happen to use a cloud service. This is a complete non-issue for consumers, but it's a huge miss for enterprises. Couple this with the huge architectural change in the Windows 8 user interface—no start screen; a "redesigned" touch-based, no-chrome UI lacking menu bars, scroll bars or other options; putting the tablet-friendly Metro interface first and the desktop a distant second, and so on. Business users want consistency. CIOs don't want to have to purchase licenses for a new OS that it will cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to train employees to use properly.
These are just a few examples of how Microsoft is tilting to the consumer and away from the business users that have made it a cash cow for so long—all while maintaining that enterprise is the bread and butter of the company.
3. Windows is Driving Many Decisions Across Microsoft—and Not Just With the OS.
Along with the huge consumer focus, I submit Exhibit C for your consideration: the early decision to cripple Visual Studio Express, the free version of the development tool, from producing any standard Windows applications.
To be fair, this decision was reversed last week when (yet another) new SKU of Visual Studio 2012 Express was created for desktop developments. Originally, though, the plan from Redmond was that you'd have to pony up several hundred, if not thousands, of dollars per developer to create standard Windows applications based on the .NET Framework, Windows Forms, and so on.
I found it amazing that Visual Studio Express, which historically has been able to create most applications—albeit without the bells, whistles and accoutrements that beefed-up Visual Studio versions have had— was going to be restricted to developing only Metro-style apps for Windows 8, Windows RT (the tablet) and, presumably, Windows Phone 7.5 and whatever the next version will be called.
The message, regardless of the decision's reversal? Please write apps for our consumer products, not your next line-of-business custom program. This move would have been a huge swing. Microsoft has always been about making it as easy and as fast as possible to develop for Windows in any way, shape or form. Think back to Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer and his hooting and hollering about "developers, developers, developers!"
The Visual Studio Express decision is such antipattern that it had to have been driven from the Windows division, headed by Steven Sinofsky. It seems that the Developer Division, where all the developer tools come from, basically had to fall in line. Ultimately, the Windows client rules the roost at Microsoft these days—and the results aren't always pretty.
4. Windows 7 Is a Solid, Compelling Upgrade Over Windows XP.
Windows XP support and security updates are drying up very soon. Many enterprises, knowing where they are in the Microsoft published support lifecycle, have Windows 7 hardware and software refresh programs underway. Having skipped Vista, these companies are standardizing on Windows 7, and they won't be in the market for another desktop upgrade for at least three to four years. (Going from Windows XP to Windows 8 is not recommended.) Furthermore, few companies will consider hybrid deployments of Windows 7 and Windows 8, since that's a support nightmare. In short, enterprises will probably pass on Windows 8.
There's very little compelling reason to upgrade to Windows 8 from Windows 7. There are a few nice new features in Windows 8—including Windows To Go, a faster boot sequence and better BitLocker support—but even in the aggregate they simply don't justify a deployment effort, and the attendant retraining, to thousands of employees.
When it comes to Windows 8, Microsoft has stopped telling you that Windows 7 is simply good enough—but it's true. Waiting for Windows 8 doesn't buy you a lot. It's a painful reality for the software giant, but a very real one indeed.
5. Microsoft's Roadmap Is Fuzzy.
Even if the company had a solid vision going forward, you wouldn't get to see it. This very clear move to mimic Apple aims to do two things— drive consumer product demand and keep Microsoft's moves very secret, thereby building a monumental buzz when the products are unleash onto the world all at once.
The end result is an almost-total reduction in the amount of disclosure Microsoft makes to its customers about products and services in its pipeline. Whereas customers were along for the ride on every milestone and delay for Windows XP, Windows Vista, Windows Server and so on, now we have very little idea when Windows 8 is coming except "this year."
Commentary: Is Microsoft Too Old and Too Big to Survive?
Also consider the state of Windows 8 and Visual Studio 2012. Windows 8 is now going to have a brand new UI outside of the Metro-style desktop, but that won't even be made public until the product is released to manufacturing. Why make such large changes to of all things the user interface—not just the usual big fixes—this late in the game? It speaks to disorganization.
Couple this with some of the changes that have been made to the next version of Visual Studio. Customers are screaming to reverse many of the UI changes that the company keeps making to its product even at these hypercritical junctures very close to scheduled releases.
Looking at these five points, you can't help but think that Microsoft faces myriad problems, ranging from too many cooks in the soup to driving individuality in the face of corporate control to simply lacking a grand plan other than "the cloud." Only time will tell if these problems can be solved—but the tea leaves are there for you to read.
Jonathan Hassell runs 82 Ventures, a consulting firm based out of Charlotte. He's also an editor with Apress Media LLC. Reach him via email and on Twitter. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline, on Facebook, and on Google +.