Whither Microsoft?

A strange thing has happened over the past few years.

Do you Bing? More likely, you Google.

If you don’t have an iPhone, you probably have a Droid. Or a Blackberry. Or you’re thinking, “I just want a damn cell phone!”

Do you have a Zune? You probably have an iPod, or you use your smartphone, which probably is a Droid, an iPhone, or a Blackberry.

Most of us still own PC’s, which one recent Dilbert strip referred derisively to as “grandpa boxes.” I don’t believe the PC’s demise is as imminent as some pundits are hyping. There are too many of them in offices around the world that won’t be going away anytime soon. And as long as laptops (Well, Windows laptops, anyway) continue to drop in price, they’re likely not going anywhere for a while. In fact, the machine this post was written on cost less than 1/3 of the machine it replaced, which was purchased in 2005.

So what happened? Microsoft once owned the world. Bill Gates once boasted that you had to go back to the Roman Empire to find an organization as influential as Microsoft. Methinks Bill was full of it, but you could understand how he might have believed it.

Now? We live in the post-Microsoft world. They no longer set the trends. Companies follow Google in search and content delivery. Apple leads the way in tablet and smartphone technology. And the cloud that Bill Gates once said he’d like to use to deliver Microsoft  apps? Well, that’s Amazon.

There is no Microsoft ereader. The Zune is dead. And Windows Phone is just holding on. So what happens to Microsoft?

You may not see where Microsoft excels these days, but I see it in my job. .Net is a far more stable development environment than Java (IBM and Android’s implementations notwithstanding). Apps can be developed on it for the web and backed with SQL Server. What’s SQL Server? It’s a database management system that is just as robust and versatile as its biggest competitors, Oracle, IBM’s DB2, and MySQL. Unlike Oracle, Microsoft is not interested in wringing SQL Server users’ wallets dry. Sure, you have to pay for Azure, but that’s Software As A Service (SAAS). Since SQL Server 2005, there has been a free option, as well as a tiered pricing for various higher end versions. And unlike MySQL, Oracle won’t be buying it out to leave it whither on the vine anytime soon.

If this looks familiar, it should. IBM used to be front and center in business and personal computing. Even after Y2K, some people still referred to the dichotomy between PC’s and Macs as IBM vs. Mac. Never mind that DOS and the old Macintosh System had long headed for the scrap heap. But IBM realized it couldn’t compete forever making PC’s and mainframes. They retooled. Their core product is now the iSeries platform, which includes IBM’s native install of Java, Apache, and its DB2 platform. You don’t see IBM in your home because they don’t do consumer computing anymore. Well, they do. They’re part owners of China’s Lenovo, who bought out IBM’s PC business. But Lenovo lags behind Dell and Acer in home sales, where most of your computers go.

The Big 3 of computing are no longer IBM, Sun, and Microsoft.  It’s now Apple, Amazon, and Google, all consumer-facing organizations. So whither Microsoft?

Microsoft will continue to thrive, as soon as it ditches its revenge-obsessed CEO Steve Ballmer, in the business arena. Like IBM, it will reinvent its core platform, Windows (Windows 8 looks fantastic, btw, even better than Windows 7, which finally achieved the elusive “Just turn it on, stupid” nirvana Redmond, WA, seemed to find elusive.) They might even take it open-source.


If it’s open-source, and the entry points to development all have free options, it creates a market for Microsoft’s consulting services, where IBM makes most of its money today. Oh, they’ll continue to innovate. But in a world increasingly Unix/Linux driven (like Android and iOS are), what’s the point of an expensive operating system that has a wonky activation process?

No, Microsoft’s future does not lie with the consumer. They gave us the Start button and ceded the rest to Apple and Google long ago. Microsoft’s future is behind the scenes, in SQL Server, in development platforms like .Net, and in building the cloud. You might not see them in a few years, but they’ll be everywhere.

Which will mean a more fodder for conspiracy theorists.  Start making up paranoid delusions now.