Tuesday, September 3, 2013

I Am Lost. Can Anyone Tell Me What Direction Microsoft Is Headed To?

For 15 years I work in IT now. And from day one I worked with Microsoft based technologies. Yes, made a few side steps as well like UNIX. But soon I discovered that I loved the Microsoft based technologies the most.

Why? One very important aspect was the availability of those technologies. With TechNet this software was distributed on CD-ROMs to the subscribers, enabling them to install the software on some spare boxes and to test, trial it and most importantly to LEARN and GROW.

Since I was totally new in the IT industry I had much to learn. Through TechNet Microsoft enabled many people like me to do so at a high pace. It also paved the way for my certifications: MCP, MCSE, MCSA, MCITP  and MCSE (again) to name a few.

Pizza anyone?
In those days the boot camps came to be. One could become a MCSE within days. So on Monday one entered the boot camp as a pizza delivery man (no disrespect here, just using an example here) and on Friday the same week one left the boot camp with the MCSE certification.

On one hand this was great for Microsoft. Since it created a huge pool of people being capable (at least on paper) to support their technologies. So when a company was about to buy software, they also had to look for people qualified to deliver support for it. And with the legions of people having a MCSE certification, this was no issue at all.

More is Less…
However, the downside of it all became clear as well. As it turned out, many of the new MCSE certified people couldn’t deliver. Simply because they lacked the basics one really requires in order to become a good systems engineer. One has to grow into that job and set of responsibilities. This isn’t covered in a week!

So soon the MCSE certification suffered real inflation. Many companies joked about it, like the MCSE certification was put in the boxes with cereals one ate for breakfast.

This issue lasted for a long time, even though Microsoft started to differentiate in the MCSE levels (SQL, Messaging and so on) and made the exams harder to pass.

Let’s go for the top!
So some years back Microsoft decided to differentiate between the masses and the really exceptionally good ones. New top-level certification programs were born: MCM (Microsoft Certified Master), MCA (Microsoft Certified Architect) and MCSM (Microsoft Certified Solutions Master)

These are the highest level of certification for Microsoft technologies once can get. But believe me when I am telling you that these top-level certification programs are really the heaviest one around.

To compare: MCSE training is for the masses, like a basic soldier training. However, MCM, MCA or MCSM is the Navy Seal training. Only a few highly experienced soldiers/marines get into training and a small percentage of them make it through the whole training program.

So for me people who’re certified MCM, MCA or MCSM are real IT hero’s. I know a few of them and I respect them highly for their knowledge, and profound experience.

Screen time
Some years back Microsoft had a monopoly. Per person there is a certain amount of ‘screen time’ to be spent. This screen time refers to the time one spends behind the computer screen. In the old days this meant desktop and/or laptop. The mobile phones back then were just phones and nothing more. So no screen time was spent there.

Since Microsoft ruled the desktop and laptop world, it also ruled the screen time. No matter at your job or at home, Bill Gates dream (a desktop in every house and on every desk) had become a fact. Linux played a minor role in it, even though Microsoft feared it for some time. But it never got a real foothold on the desktop/laptop.

Fancy a fruit anyone?
However, as time went by, developments stepped up the pace. And soon computers became even smaller enabling them to be combined with a mobile phone. Hence the smart phone was born. The first ones were expensive and had bad user interfaces. Because of this many people stuck to their desktops/laptops.

Microsoft tried to launch a new concept, the tablet but that didn’t land very well. So the tablet disappeared to the background.

In those days a small company was in trouble. Apple had some serious financial issues and Bill Gates stepped in. Apple ‘got’ 150 million dollars from Microsoft. Steve Jobs (needs no introduction) spent every single dollar very well of that sum of money.

iPod was soon born and after it a new smart phone was introduced, the iPhone. And this one took off! It introduced a whole new interface and usage of applications. it didn’t only steal the hearts and minds of the consumers but also the hearts and minds of the developers, building apps for the new platform, iOS. And because of the ever growing myriad of apps, the consumers loved the iPhone even more. And because of that, the developers built even more apps for it, some of them of a very high quality.

Seach engine goes mobile
Microsoft dismissed this. During an interview Steve Ballmer laughed at the iPhone.

However, Google noticed the sudden grow of demand for smart phones and wanted some piece of it as well. Not because they wanted to become a hardware reseller but saw the smart phone as a platform to sell more advertisements. In the past they had tried to enter that market but failed. Now they launched a new OS for the smart phones, titled Android.

With Samsung, HTC and other hardware vendors Android took off and grew rapidly.

However, Steve Jobs wasn’t done. While the iPhone was a huge success and gaining more traction every week, the iPad was launched. Basically an oversized iPhone without the phone functionality. And we all know what happened: a whole new market was born.

No more monopolies
And before Microsoft realized it, one of their nightmares had materialized: UNIX/Linux had taken away the screen time from the desktop/laptop thus eating away market share from Microsoft.

Guess what? Android and iOS are UNIX based. And many people use their smart phones and/or tablets for functionality they used their Windows based desktops/laptops for. So the screen time is now being divided between a whole range of devices many of which don’t run a Microsoft based OS.

This didn’t happen overnight. The signs were on the wall for some time but some people were sleeping. And not only at Microsoft. Nokia was caught in it as well. They had a monopoly as well in the mobile phone space. But the interfaces of their phones became outdated while the public demanded for better and faster interfaces. Nokia didn’t get on par with it so they were caught with their pants down as well. BlackBerry is even fighting for it’s own existence.

In the mobile space Microsoft tried to gain a foothold but failed. Windows Mobile was a terrible phone OS. Not for a full 100% on itself but also the hardware vendors who built the hardware for it. In order to make some money (the Windows Mobile licenses didn’t come cheap) they used cheaper hardware which resulted in poor performance of the phone.

Eco system & Catch 22
With the iPhone, iPad and Android based smart phones and later on tablets entering the households AND enterprises, a whole new eco system was born. A shift took place. The hardware itself was still important of course (performance, look & feel) but ever growing more important was the myriad of applications (apps) available for it.

The more apps with a good level of quality, the more the platform would be bought by the consumers. The more consumers bought it, the more developers would step in. And so on.

Finally Microsoft realized what was happening and tried to catch up. Windows Mobile was dumped and Windows Phone 7 was born. A whole new concept of the user interface for a smart phone was introduced. Where Android mimics iOS to a huge extend, Windows Phone 7 introduced a whole new style of using your smart phone.

So finally Microsoft got that one right. Also the vendors selling the phones themselves had to meet certain specifications. So the hardware layer was finally okay as well. Awesome! But the eco system turned out not to be so good. It was mostly empty so the Windows 7 Phone wasn’t tempting many consumers at all. Thus keeping the developers away as well. Resulting in disappointing sales.

The concrete life jacket
Windows 8 was introduced in order to get things right. A new form factor came to be, the Microsoft Surface. running Windows 8 RT or Windows 8 Pro. Also Windows Phone 8 was introduced, running on hardware made by Nokia.

The Surface tablets were sold for premium prices while the eco system was flawed. Yes, the numbers of apps in that Store grew by day. But quantity became leading instead of quality. And with the premium prices to be paid for the Surface consumers decided to go for iPad or Android based tablets. Simply because those app stores are filled to the brim. For sure some or even many of those apps aren’t really good, but since there are so many apps out there, many of those apps deliver what the consumers want. So the developers keep on building apps for iOs and Android.

So Microsoft failed on that account and had to write off almost one billion dollars for the Surface (RT) debacle. Windows 8 phone failed as well. Not on the same level but its eco system is still flawed thus hampering real foothold on the smart phone market.

On top of it all, Windows 8 ditched the Start Menu, making many people to stay away from Windows 8 all together, hampering the declining PC sales even more. So in that area Microsoft suffered as well. The life jacket which Windows 8 was meant to be became a burden to an already distressed situation.

Birds territory?
On top of it all, or even in conjunction with all previous mentioned developments, cloud computing came to be. Google and Amazon are cloud based companies where cloud computing is in their DNA. Without it, no Google nor Amazon.

Other companies however had to step in. Otherwise they would become irrelevant. Microsoft stepped in some years ago with a SaaS model, BPOS (Business Productivity Online Suite), Exchange and SharePoint running online. This later became Office 365.

Besides that Microsoft started with IaaS and PaaS as well, which is now titled Windows Azure, offering VMs, SQL, Active Directory (to name a few) and way much more from the cloud.

Microsoft has stated that the cloud is the way to go and has thus decided that a reorganization is required in order to facilitate the Microsoft of tomorrow: instead of building and selling (boxed) software mainly targeted for on-premise utilization, Microsoft must become a services and devices company. Microsoft therefore launched it’s Cloud First strategy stating cloud comes first. Also resulting in much higher development cycles.

Some people say cloud is for the birds. Future will tell whether the cloud is really going to take off as many companies do think. Personally I see added value for the cloud but there are still some mighty important hurdles to be taken, like legal affairs and privacy. The PRISM debacle has made these issues even more prominent and require many political answers like new laws and so on.

We’re big and we don’t care
Even though I know for sure this isn’t Microsoft’s strategy nor approach of the market, it’s still the message they do get out lately. First the retirement of TechNet and now the retirement of the top-level certification programs MCA, MCM and MCSM. (Old colleague and good friend of mine Marcel van den Berg has written a very good posting about this topic. I fully agree with his conclusions.)

These retirements on itself are already bad news. On top of it all these decisions were badly timed and poorly communicated lacking true understanding of its impact. Also Microsoft turns a deaf ear to all the arguments NOT to retire both programs I mentioned earlier.

This creates an unwanted situation for Microsoft and the IT pro’s. Microsoft needs the heart and minds of the IT pro’s in order to gain a foothold in the mobile space. But with the latest actions, decisions and communications it looks like Microsoft is turning its back on the IT pro’s.

Microsoft out?
The IT pro’s (today still focused at Microsoft based technologies) require good access to the resources like software and certifications. But by leaving them outside in the cold these people are forced to move on. And now with other non-Microsoft platforms being a part of their everyday life  it’s makes it easier for them to embrace other non-Microsoft based technologies, whether these are on-premise or cloud based.

This movement happened before, when people were running UNIX and/or Novell based systems and switched en masse to Microsoft. This movement can happen again and this time away from Microsoft based technologies.  

Where we are today
I see a market which is divided. Not only in the technologies to be applied but also the way the IT services are being consumed. On a myriad of devices with different form factors.On itself a challenge to keep that on par with the requirements of the business involved.

Also the cloud adoption is at play here. Many companies are interested in the cloud and the possibilities it has to offer. A move to Office 365 or the competitor Google Docs isn’t too hard for the smaller companies dealing with none-sensitive information like law firms and governments for instance do.

But the move to IaaS/PaaS is way more difficult, resulting in a hybrid model at its best. Test- and development environments are great examples to be consumed from the cloud. But more business critical applications like databases with sensitive data aren’t pushed to the public cloud that easy.

A step in between is the private cloud which embraces the same technologies involved in the public cloud models. However in this kind of setup all the resources are consumed by one party only. But the costs of implementing and maintaining such an environment are many times too big for the smaller companies so for them it’s a no go area.

Before the adoption of the public cloud – whether it’s IaaS, Paas or SaaS – happens on a big scale and becomes common practice, some serious issues have to be addressed at far higher levels like legal and politics. PRISM has underlined this and requires some serious answers and actions. So for now and the first two years to come, many companies are forced to run their IT operations mostly on-premise, whether they want it or not.

Cloud cloud cloud. No more on-premise?
However, Microsoft has unfolded their Cloud First Strategy. What does that say to those companies running most of their IT operations on-premise for the first two years to come?

For CIOs of companies like that it’s a bad omen. Especially combined with the latest foul ups with the monthly patch cycle. In total six had to be recalled simply because they broke things. Seems like Microsoft is having issues with the stepped up development cycles.

Where do you want to go today?
But are there any real alternatives? In the short term, not really. In the long term, there will be when Microsoft really decides to go for the cloud and turn their back on their on-premise customers who aren’t cloud ready yet.

This will result in another uphill battle Microsoft will have to fight in order to win them back. As we see with the other uphill battles (tablets and mobile phones), they don’t bring the hoped for results.

Not because there is no space for Microsoft in those markets but mostly because of the poor execution of those battles. And  bad timing as well. Example? In the same month Microsoft reported a loss of nearly one billion dollars for the Surface, they brought out a video trying to bash the iPad

As an unwanted result, these battles bring out a whole other kind of message which sets the way Microsoft is looked upon and experienced by many people today, ranging from consumers up to CIOs: Microsoft is becoming irrelevant.

And that is really bad. Therefore I hope the change for a new CEO will revive Microsoft and put them back on the map. Not like the monopolist they once were (those days are really over) but at least to become a good player in the mobile and tablet space, and with a keen eye for their current on-premise customer base as well.

Oh, and while the new CEO is at it, please let him recall the retirements of the top level certification programs (MCM, MCA and MCSM) and introduce a REAL alternative for TechNet. This aids Microsoft more in gaining back the hearts and minds of the IT pro’s compared to leave them out in the cold.


M.Mathew said...

Well written article.!

Unknown said...

Totally agree. I'm very typical of an IT pro who supported MS over the years. As sad indictment of the current state of affairs at MS this week I turned down a good opportunity to work for them as I think my future career is probably going to be better served by steering myself away from MS to other vendors.