Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer used a speech at the University of Washington to suggest that the company's strategy moving forward will focus primarily on the cloud. Ballmer cited a number of services and platforms, including Windows Phone 7 Series and Xbox Live, as particularly cloud-centric. Microsoft faces substantial competition in its cloud-based initiatives from a number of companies, notably Google in the areas of search engines and online productivity suites, and the question remains how its desktop-centric products such as the Windows franchise will change in order to meet what Ballmer sees as the new IT reality.
Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer suggested
during a March 4 speech at the University of Washington that, despite his
company having made its fortune through desktop-based software platforms such
as Windows and Office, the primary focus going forward will be on the cloud and
applications derived from it.
"We shipped Windows 7, which had a lot
that's not cloud-based. Our inspiration now starts with the cloud,"
Ballmer said. "Windows Phone, Xbox, Windows Azure and SQL
Azure ... this is the bet for our company."
On the screen behind him, a logo of a cloud
flashed up, superimposed against the words: "We're all in."
"Companies like ours, can they move and
dial in and focus and embrace?" Ballmer asked rhetorically. "That's
where we're programmed. You shouldn't get into this industry if you don't want
things to change. The field of endeavor keeps moving forward."
Among the Microsoft cloud initiatives that
Ballmer discussed: the creation of a cloud-based Office that would allow
workers to collaborate and communicate, cloud-ported entertainment via Xbox
Live, and the creation of what he termed "smarter devices" that would be
capable of rapidly integrating new hardware and software that could interact
smoothly with the cloud. He also cited Microsoft's cloud-based development
platform, Windows Azure, noting a University of Washington project
called Azure Ocean that apparently collects all of the world's oceanographic data.
The Windows Phone 7 Series, Microsoft's
latest attempt at a smartphone operating system, was cited as one of those
cloud-centric smarter devices. "Earlier [Microsoft] phones were designed
for voice and legacy [applications]," Ballmer said, while Windows Phone 7
Series was designed to "put people, places, content, commerce all front
and center for the users with a different point of view than some other
Ballmer also aligned the cloud with search
and Bing Maps, citing the reciprocal need of both those services to pull in
information from users in order to "learn" and refine their
fundamental actions. Bing Maps has begun integrating Flickr images into its
Streetside feature, which presents an eye-level view of a particular
environment; in an effort to present even more views to users, Microsoft is
apparently experimenting with putting Streetside cameras on pedestrians and
bikes as opposed to the roofs of cars, which can provide only a limited number
of perspectives on a given street.
In a similar way, search engines such as Bing
take the history information ported into them by users to better gauge ultimate
user intent. "The ability of the cloud to learn from all of the data
that's out there, and learn from me about what I'm interested in," Ballmer
suggested, is one of the cloud's most fundamental dimensions.
Microsoft faces substantial competition in
the cloud space from a number of companies, particularly when it comes to
consumer applications. Apple's App Store, which Ballmer admitted was "a
very nice job," has a substantial lead in the cloud-based monetization of
intellectual property such as music and movies. Google, meanwhile, holds a
sizable lead in the U.S. search
engine market, while its Google Apps cloud-based productivity suite has been
making inroads with government and businesses.
Google has announced plans for a dedicated
federal cloud computing system sometime this year, a move that likely helped
Feb. 24 announcement of Business Productivity Online Suite Federal, an
online-services cloud for the U.S. government that comes with rigorous security
Ballmer's talk seemed to indicate that
Microsoft will focus its competitive energies increasingly in these cloudy
areas. What that alignment will mean for the development of the traditionally
desktop-bound Windows franchise, the company's flagship product, remains to be
seen; in a Jan. 31 blog posting on the Microsoft Developer Network,
a project manager suggested that development of Windows 8 is already under way.
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.