Microsoft may have used its Worldwide Partner Conference to push the cloud as the center of its corporate strategy-but as company executives described it on several occasions, Microsoft's vision of the cloud is one where rich clients, or devices capable of functioning without connection to the Web or a server, continue to play a major part in the lives of consumers and the enterprise.
The nuances of that rich-client strategy again place Microsoft in competitive dichotomy with its largest rival in the online space, Google, which has a vision for the future that centers on devices perpetually connected to the Web. The search engine giant is currently developing a browser-based operating system, Chrome OS, which will likely find its way onto netbooks and tablet PCs.
Pushing a rich-client strategy also allows Microsoft to take advantage of its area of traditional strength, desktop-based software. Rich clients with more robust processors are capable of running higher-priced versions of Windows, as well as other flagship platforms such as Office 2010.
"Many people, especially in corporate IT, they say we're only going to use thin clients," Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer told the audience at the Verizon Center during his July 12 keynote address. "I don't believe that at all. I don't believe the cloud is a place where thin clients will take over. Again and again, we see the advantage of rich clients ... The world of tomorrow is a world of a smart cloud talking to smart devices."
Rich clients, Ballmer continued, are suited for the cloud because they "can be higher-performance; the rich device can do more on behalf of the user without network latency; the rich device saves bandwidth."
In his speech, he seemed to reiterate a Microsoft talking point that has come up periodically over the last year or so, that applications and programs will still need to draw on the desktop's muscle-even in an increasingly cloud-based world. Other executives at the conference reinforced that message.
"Slates and phones are really rich, with some experiences that take place in the browser and some that are not in the browser," Robert Wahbe, corporate vice president of Microsoft's Server and Tools Marketing Group, said in a July 12 interview with eWEEK. By providing the extra processing power needed to run software downloaded from the Web, he said, "rich devices complement the cloud."
Wahbe continued, "People are carrying around multiple devices, and they expect them to be optimized for that experience."
Ballmer has targeted the thin client before. In the summer of 2009, during Microsoft's annual Financial Analyst Meeting, he dismissed the utility of browser-based operating systems, specifically Google's Chrome OS, and of thin clients.
"We have competitors who say they believe in thin clients," he told the assembled analysts. "What they are really saying is they believe in the browser operating system ... But don't think there is some magic technology, [a] revolutionary thing that they believe in differently."
During that meeting, Ballmer touted a line of ultrathin PCs scheduled to debut by 2010, which would provide the lightweight form factor of a netbook, a "thinner" device, with enough processing power to presumably run a higher-cost version of Windows.
"We want people to be able to get the advantages of lightweight performance and be able to spend more money with us," he told the analysts.
While rich clients offer Microsoft the chance to clear higher margins on its software, the company has nonetheless taken pains to embrace more browser-centric, thin-client-suited initiatives; its new Office Web Apps, for example, allow document viewing and editing via the browser for users with a free Windows Live account.