Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer kicked off the company's Worldwide Partner Conference by pushing the cloud, tablets running Windows 7 and Windows Phone 7 as the way of the smartphone future.
WASHINGTON, D.C.-Microsoft kicked off its annual Worldwide
Partner Conference here July 12 with a high-decibel keynote address by
Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, who promoted the cloud as the way of the future,
and suggested that a family of tablet PCs running Windows 7 would appear in the
Ballmer also touted the upcoming Windows Phone 7, which the
company is pushing as a total reset of its smartphone operating-system
franchise. Although Microsoft's Windows Mobile holds a certain percentage of
enterprise users, it has been losing ground in the consumer area to a variety
of strong competitors, including Google Android and Apple iPhone.
"This is a terribly important area to us," Ballmer told the
audience filling the Verizon Center, referring to both Windows 7-based tablet
PCs and Windows Phone 7 devices. "We need to push this from a Microsoft
perspective: we want to give you a great, consumer-oriented device, a device
that is manageable with today's IT solutions."
Within the next several months, Ballmer added, "You will see
a range of Windows 7 slates. They will run Windows 7. They will run Office.
They will accept ink- as well as touch-based input."
He also continued his months-long mea culpa for Microsoft's
anemic performance in the smartphone arena: "We missed a generation with
Windows Mobile. We really did miss a release cycle." However, he promised,
Windows Phone 7 will change all that: "We will give you a set of Windows-based
devices that people will be proud to carry."
Unlike competitors such as the Apple iPhone, which rely on a
user interface that displays applications on a menu-like screen, Windows Phone
7 aggregates Web content and applications into subject-specific "Hubs" such as
"Office" and "Games."
The nearly weeklong WPC is a chance for Microsoft to promote
the benefits of the company's partner network, and offer those partners a wide
variety of events such as hands-on labs.
As it kicks off the conference, Microsoft finds itself
amidst the proverbial best and worst of times. The company's flagship software
platform, Windows 7, has proven an exceptionally robust bestseller in the
months following its October 2009 release, and business spending-the key to
many of its partners' livelihoods-has been slowly reviving after years of
However, if Microsoft can claim victory in its core businesses,
some of its more creative initiatives have also taken an expensive beating.
Last week, the company was forced to discontinue its Kin social-networking
phones due to anemic sales. Although the Kin phones were aimed at a fairly
narrow demographic-social-networking-happy teenagers and young adults-its rapid
death has led to outside pundits' questioning Microsoft's ability to execute
its broader plan for Windows Phone 7, which is due for release on select
devices later in 2010.
Microsoft also faces growing challenges to some of its core
businesses. While its Office franchise holds the lion's share of the consumer
and business audience, cloud-based productivity software such as Google Docs
threatens to take its own piece of the market; to compensate, Microsoft is
introducing Office Web Apps that offer stripped-down Office functionality via
Windows Live. But should consumers and businesses continue to gravitate to the
cloud-itself dependent on public and private clouds becoming more prevalent and
reliable, an inevitability in the eyes of many analysts-then Microsoft may need
to start making a more aggressive argument for why those audiences should stay
with desktop-based software.
Microsoft is using the conference to assure its partners
that it recognizes the growth of the cloud. "We've been shouting about -O
Cloud' at the WPC now for about four years," Ballmer said during his keynote.
"There's no question that Microsoft has chosen to embrace that path together
with all of you, and there's no question that there's more to do."
Ballmer suggested that Azure, Microsoft's cloud-development
platform, now had 10,000 users, and that the company controlled 30 percent of
the virtualization market. He framed the cloud as capable of removing much of
the cost and complexity associated with IT departments-at least on the customer
side. For Microsoft, though, the increased use of the cloud brings with it a
particular brand of challenge.
"When customers put their data in our system," Ballmer said,
"when they entrust more and more of their data and operations to us, there's
the need to do a better job on reliability, security, privacy."
Much of Microsoft's ability to handle the IT infrastructure
associated with enterprise-facing clouds, he added, was coming courtesy of its
work in a number of more consumer-related initiatives-particularly Bing, the
company's search engine.
"Once you have millions of people trying to figure things
out and make decisions and mine data, you find out a lot about the technology
that allows you to statistically understand what users are doing," Ballmer
said. "-Show me industry-wide sales of computers by company,' that is a BI
question that I've inputted into a search engine. How do we apply that to
enterprise technologies? How do we do better at bringing together enterprise
data with industry data?"
He suggested that a Microsoft program code-named "Dallas"
was developing ways to pull together enterprise and cloud data in a way that
allows companies to make more informed decisions.
From Microsoft's perspective, the cloud is also driving
server advances. "We have learned a lot through running Windows Live, Hotmail,
Bing," Ballmer said. "These are some of the highest volume services run on the
Internet today. When you run a highly scaled, highly dynamic service, you need
a whole new approach to running a data center." The need for Microsoft to
redesign its own infrastructure, apparently, has led to advances in how it
develops the infrastructure for other companies' cloud-based enterprise
In previous months, he has insisted that his company is "all
in" when it comes to the cloud. The opening morning of WPC reemphasizes that
Nicholas Kolakowski is a staff editor at eWEEK, covering Microsoft and other companies in the enterprise space, as well as evolving technology such as tablet PCs. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, Playboy, WebMD, AARP the Magazine, AutoWeek, Washington City Paper, Trader Monthly, and Private Air. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.