Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer gave a talk on the company’s cloud strategy at the University of Washington yesterday. Although a small event, the webcast was widely publicised and coincides with a leaked internal memo on “how cloud computing will change the way people and businesses use technology”, a new Cloud website, and a Cloud Computing press portal, so it is fair to assume that this represents a significant strategy shift.
According to Ballmer:
about 70 percent of our folks are doing things that are entirely cloud-based, or cloud inspired. And by a year from now that will be 90 percent
I watched the webcast, and it struck me as significant that Ballmer kicked off with a vox pop video where various passers by were asked what they thought about cloud computing. Naturally they had no idea, the implication being, I suppose, that the cloud is some new thing that most people are not yet aware of. Ballmer did not spell out why Microsoft made the video, but I suspect he was trying to reassure himself and others that his company is not too late.
I thought the vox pop was mis-conceived. Cloud computing is a technical concept. What if you did a vox pop on the graphical user interface? or concurrency? or Unix? or SQL? You would get equally baffled responses.
It was an interesting contrast with Google’s Eric Schmidt who gave a talk at last month’s Mobile World Congress that was also a big strategy talk; I posted about it here. Schmidt takes the cloud for granted. He does not treat it as the next big thing, but as something that is already here. His talk was both inspiring and chilling. It was inspiring in the sense of what is now possible – for example, that you can go into a restaurant, point your mobile at a foreign-language menu, and get back an instant translation, thanks to Google’s ability to mine its database of human activity. It was chilling with its implications for privacy and Schmidt’s seeming disregard for them.
Ballmer on the other hand is focused on how to transition a company whose business is primarily desktop operating systems and software to one that can prosper in the cloud era:
If you think about where we grew up, other than Windows, we grew up with this product called Microsoft Office. And it’s all about expressing yourself. It’s e-mail, it’s Word, it’s PowerPoint. It’s expression, and interaction, and collaboration. And so really taking Microsoft Office to the cloud, letting it run in the cloud, letting it run from the cloud, helping it let people connect and communicate, and express themselves. That’s one of the core kind of technical ambitions behind the next release of our Office product, which you’ll see coming to market this June.
Really? That’s not my impression of Office 2010. It’s the same old desktop suite, with a dollop of new features and a heavily cut-down online version called Office Web Apps. The problem is not only that Office Web Apps is designed to keep you dependent on offline Office. The problem is that the whole model is wrong. The business model is still based on the three-year upgrade cycle. The real transition comes when the Web Apps are the main version, to which we subscribe, which get constant incremental updates and have an API that lets them participate in mash-ups across the internet.
That said, there are parallels between Ballmer’s talk and that of Schmidt. Ballmer spoke of 5 dimensions:
- The cloud creates opportunities and responsibilities
- The cloud learns and helps you learn, decide and take action
- The cloud enhances your social and professional interactions
- The cloud wants smarter devices
- The cloud drives server advances
In the most general sense, those are similar themes. I can even believe that Ballmer, and by implication Microsoft, now realises the necessity of a deep transition, not just adding a few features to Office and Windows. I am not sure though that it is possible for Microsoft as we know it, which is based on Windows, Office and Partners.
Someone asks if Microsoft is just reacting to others. Ballmer says:
You know, if I take a look and say, hey, look, where am I proud of where we are relative to other guys, I’d point to Azure. I think Azure is very different than anything else on the market. I don’t think anybody else is trying to redefine the programming model. I think Amazon has done a nice job of helping you take the server-based programming model, the programming model of yesterday that is not scale agnostic, and then bringing it into the cloud. They’ve done a great job; I give them credit for that. On the other hand, what we’re trying to do with Azure is let you write a different kind of application, and I think we’re more forward-looking in our design point than on a lot of things that we’re doing, and at least right now I don’t see the other guy out there who’s doing the equivalent.
Sorry, I don’t buy this either. Azure does have distinct advantages, mainly to do with porting your existing ASP.NET application and integrating with existing Windows infrastructure. I don’t believe it is “scale agnostic”; something like Google App Engine is better in that respect. With Azure you have to think about how many virtual machines you want to purchase. Nor do I think Azure lets you write “a different kind of application.” There is too little multi-tenancy, too much of the old Windows server model remains in Azure.
Finally, I am surprised how poor Microsoft has become at articulating its message. Azure was badly presented at last year’s PDC, which Ballmer did not attend. It is not an attractive platform for small-scale developers, which makes it hard to get started.