Steve Ballmer’s odd relation with clouds
As the boss at Microsoft now that Bill Gates is doing his retirement lap, Steve Ballmer has to be the company’s chief cheerleader, seer and management guru. Nowhere was that more in evidence than at the recent Gartner IT Symposium where for the tenth year in a row, Ballmer showed up on stage to get a gentle grilling by a couple of Gartner analysts.
And nowhere was the delicate balance Ballmer has to achieve between defending the old and embracing the new than we he talked about cloud or computing where the browser becomes simply a window and the real heavy lifting is done at some massive data center a continent away.
If I could summarize Ballmer’s take on the rise of apps sitting in the cloud it would be as follows. You’ll always need a robust operating system residing on your laptop, or desktop or phone because the extra horsepower sitting under your fingertips will give you a more robust, complete computer experience than if you were simply looking at bits that have been worked over elsewhere.
“You will never be able to do as good a job in Microsoft office if you are browser based versus rich client based,” said Ballmer.
However, and this is a big however, the cloud is a great place to store stuff, combine other cloud stuff and provide a platform for sharing. See, you can have it both ways.
This, “integrated model of computation” as Ballmer described it fits in well with Microsoft’s past history. That history always demanded that applications worked best in a Windows environment (and often didn’t work at all elsewhere) and drove a need to provide operating system upgrades for the previous versions running on the client. Although, it seems to me Microsoft has met some serious resistance to Vista, Ballmer’s performance at Gartner did include some vocal overpowering of one of the Gartner analysts who was bemoaning her Vista experience. Ballmer contends Microsoft will take on Google where Google is strongest: in advertising and publishing derived revenues. He was dismissive of Google’s and others attempts at challenging Microsoft in the business applications market where Microsoft has a long history and huge market share and Google and others are newcomers. When asked to name some of the areas where Microsoft is expecting high growth, Ballmer was quick to rattle off the Sharepoint business, system manageability and mobile. And therein lies one of the big conundrums for Microsoft. The sharepoint business is successful because it allows users to share documents and information, although not on the scale of the Google shared documents product. System manageability becomes a vastly easier problem to solve in a browser-based environment where you are letting the hosted application vendors worry about keeping their systems up and running and your main concern is to provide a big data pipe to your users. And mobile systems are at their best when they are tuned for access and keep the most valuable data off the device and in the secure storage of the hosted provider. All those growth areas argue against the rich client using the cloud only for simple sharing and storage. I’ll be Ballmer’s story will shift more to the cloud as more computing heads in that direction.