The recent Microsoft news (Scoble leaving, Gates taking a reduced role, Ray Ozzie stepping up) combined with the last 10 years worth of evolution in networking and of the web really got me wondering about Microsoft's role in the future.

Specifically, I have three problems in mind. Solving any one of them will make someone very, very rich and improve computing for the rest of us. Solving all of them will show the world who the top technology company is for the 21st century.

Web/Desktop Bridge

The way I see it, desktop applications are not going away. Web applications are not going away. But web applications are changing user expectations about how desktop applications should behave, be distributed, and be priced.

But there are very few desktop applications that work "natively" with the web. Applications are, for the most part, either desktop-centric or web-centric. I've seen few (if any) that were designed with both in mind.

Nobody has made it easy to bridge that gap. There's little infrastructure or guidance in place today. Live Clipboard could be the beginning of that.

Device Bridge and Synchronization

We have desktops, laptops, palmtops, game consoles, PVRs, and "set tops" with Internet connections and useful data to share. But they're all islands of different sorts. The devices often aren't aware of each other. And even when they are, interoperability is a craps shoot.

We need a way for devices of all shapes and sizes to be able to speak and share/sync data in a meaningful fashion. And given that no one company (so far) dominates on all of these platforms, a real solution is likely to be comprised of open file formats and protocols.

A New OS

We need a new operating system. And I don't mean the "Internet Operating system" that Tim O'Reilly often speaks of. I mean that someone needs to re-think what "personal computer operating system" should mean in an age when the vast majority of computers will be on the Internet most of the time.

We all need it but most of us don't know that yet.

After all that thinking has been done, someone needs to build it and support it.

All Signs Point to Microsoft

I honestly can't think of more than one company that has the assets necessary to do all three.

I can think of a lot of companies that could solve one of those problems--maybe two. But when you look at all three of them, only Microsoft seems to have what it takes.

The $60 billion question is whether or not they can pull it off. In my mind, all three of those are vital to the future of Microsoft.

What do you think?

Posted by jzawodn at June 18, 2006 05:47 PM

Reader Comments
# joat said:

The problem I see with the above is that Microsoft specializes in innovation, not invention. It will have to purchase or copy from those companies that can only do one or two of the things that you listed.

It will also have to occur soon. Given the almost frantic need to include DRM in an OS whose primary purpose doesn't require in-house DRM, the gap between the marketing department and reality, the gap between the marketing department and the development department, and an unending supply of lawsuits and faux paux, something needs to happen. Without an ongoing supply of "good news", the "bad news" will stack up quickly, causing investors to leave in droves.


on June 18, 2006 06:15 PM
# Malcolm Tredinnick said:

Another problem you might want to have in mind is whether "Syncronization" in the second heading could handle having more h's in it. :-)

More seriously, I really hope your predictions are not correct here. We are going to be paying the penalty for Microsoft's lock-in strategies of data for many years to come. Why do you think they will change now? There's been a few shuffling of boxes on the org chart, but the bulk of the company remains the same. I do think Microsoft have a role to play as a software (and, more likely, service) provider in the future. But I hope they aren't the Great White Hope as you seem to be indicating in the last paragraphs.

on June 18, 2006 06:19 PM
# Dimitar Vesselinov said:

Is Microsoft Losing its Network Effect?

"People used to have to buy Windows machines because that was what you needed to run MS Office and most other software. But people aren't building applications on the Windows any more; they are building them on the web."

Wired-2: new communications networks, services and applications (P2P, FON, BitTorrent 2.0)
Wired: the next big thing (mobile, online gaming, augmented reality, robotics, virtual worlds)
Tired: Google, Yahoo
Expired: Microsoft

on June 18, 2006 06:21 PM
# hack said:

I don't think Microsoft could innovate their way out of a paper bag at this point. The company is dead in the water. Someone put them out of their misery.

on June 18, 2006 07:27 PM
# Michael Griffiths said:

I agree.

I also happen to think Microsoft knows this.

The pieces are all there.

Let me pull a few bad examples out -

Web/Desktop Bridge

Microsoft has historically built both platforms and programs. In terms of a "bridge," I think applications will increasingly have both a web presence AND a desktop presence.

Now - Microsoft has Groove, which is desktop-based but web-centric. It has Foldershare, which works in the background but makes your files available over the web. Both of them were purchased, and both fairly recently. Microsoft Money is a program that is realy just a desktop front-end to the MSN Money website. Indigo (WCF, now part of the .NET Framework 3.0) will make it easier for desktop programs to be internet-aware. And Avalon (WPF) can be displayed through IE (and Firefox, I'd imagine, once the devs add the feature for Windows Vista). Potential to have the same UI for desktop and web. Sure, only on Windows machines... but that's a pretty good deal, nonetheless.

Office Live is becoming an extension of Office's features. At the moment it's only for small businesses, but I believe that will change as more infrastructure is put in place. The next version of Office Online will be delivered thrugh Office Live.

Device Bridge

The Xbox teams seems to be doing this. "Live Everywhere?" Microsoft also supoorts device "bridging" on the Windows Platform. Sure, it isn't good enough. But I think Ray Ozzie will play the game of "let's dominate through technology and volume" instead of "lock in."

(Ray Ozzie is good at technology, but he's never made succesful companies. Groove is an excellent program, but it was never succesful - indeed, Microsoft bought it for less money than Ozzie raised building the company. Microsoft, on the other hand, has never had a problem with sales; mainly due to Ballmer's business sense. Ballmer is, contrary to internet speculation, rather good at what he does. It'll be interesting to see if Ray can play Gates' role without hindering Ballmer's business focus.)

Microsoft is moving towards being "device agnostic;" but it's going to take a helluva lot of political pressure on, say, the cellphone companies for anyone to there.

A New OS

I'm not sure what you're driving towards when you say "a new OS." Again, I'm not sure I see the probem with the current OS approach - I think that the internet will become more embedded into OSes as an INFORMATION source, and features will rely on the internet to really work. However, I don't believe the OS will change much apart from that - using the internet as a source for time-sensetive information and data. I also think PC-to-PC sync over the 'net (i.e. Foldershare) will become critically important, but beyond that?

I'm not sure.

Closing Thoughts

Microsoft certainly has the position of power; it has the money, it has the strategical position, it has the people. The question is: what is Microsoft's strategy? They're not about to let that become public (or its details, in any event).

The next decade will be very interesting, from a technology viewpoint.

on June 18, 2006 08:47 PM
# Martin said:

Thank God I am not Microsoft's CEO :-)

I believe everything will be net centric, and the importance of the Operating System people run on their PC's will start to fade away as Internet applications grow better
and better.

Just think of the first app you click on when you turn your computer on: Mine is Firefox, has been that way since the las two or so years.

on June 19, 2006 12:47 AM
# Manish Jethani said:

For the 'Web/Desktop Bridge', keep an eye on the Apollo project (Adobe).

on June 19, 2006 02:06 AM
# Bruce Boughton said:

Interesting that you mention a Web Bridge. I am a second year CS student (well Internet Computing) at Sussex Uni, UK, and I have decided to try to develop something like this for my third year project (even using the name WebBridge) that would allow web apps access to desktop functionality such as notification popups, tray icons, flashing toolbar items, etc.

I am very interested in your thoughts here.

on June 19, 2006 04:10 AM
# Bruce Boughton said:

NB: I wish I could subscribe to your comments!

on June 19, 2006 04:14 AM
# Gerald Buckley said:

Ditto on Apollo... Don't lose sight of Adobe in the mix... they're positioned to do amazing things if they can but pull us all together as believers and pull it off!

on June 19, 2006 05:56 AM
# Dimitar Vesselinov said:

"The question is: what is Microsoft's strategy?"

Video: Ballmer on growth, business models and Google

on June 19, 2006 10:12 AM
# grumpY! said:

microsft's predicament is consistent with the entire PC industry...a flat, boring commodity industry that has hit its inevitable flattening

big money-maker codebases like Office and Photoshop have become replacement-parts markets...even Microsoft is having problems getting this market, and has had to resort to characterizing Office97 misers as dinosaurs in ads.

Microsoft is not going away. they sit on a mountain of cash and will continue to accrue revenue from the great silent majority of people Who-Just-Don't-Care, the same mass of people who didn't switch to gmail from yahoo mail etc etc. okay so Microsoft is not a growth company anymore, they'll take a hit on the stock and move on.

but don't gloat too much, the web industry is already in commodity mode too, the last bastion of margins (adsense) will meet the buzzsaw of three-way competition in 2007. where are the great webapps of 2006? online video? this market too is slowing down and becoming a replacement parts market ("new" yahoo groups, "new" yahoo photos, "new" yahoo mail). probably the biggest money for the google/yahoos is to take existing products into new intl markets at this point.

even in the online realm, i see environments like secondlife presenting the next-gen of immersive environments. try doing that with AJAX! the web stack has hit the wall.

no laments, IT had to flatten out at some point. dear new college grad: want to change the world? triple my fuel economy or give me a solar panel i can put on my roof that makes PG&E pay *me*. we don't need any more websites.

on June 19, 2006 10:34 AM
# Jacques Marneweck said:

One can run windows merrily in parallels on a Mac. Also Microsoft Office runs well under Mac, so more people may switch when more applications are web-based. Sort of makes one wonder how Microsoft's marketing machine worked wonders with getting MSDos and Windows installed on computers back in the day, helped them gain a larger market penetration.

It's mind boggling. ;)

on June 19, 2006 03:02 PM
# Joseph Hunkins said:

Provocative thinking as usual, except I think you give MS too much credit for "getting Web 2.0", which they do not. Scoble's departure is a small sign of this (well, maybe also a sign of a much better equity stake).

Unfortunately for MS, YOU are not there. At MIX we saw something of the MS future and I think it falls very short of addressing any of your three concerns, which are a very clever pathway for MS to protect it's desktop aps market while growing new markets and pushing users into the inevitable future.

But what's wrong with Tim's WEB OS as a panacea? With that plus ubiquitous broadband it would seem the other challenges can be solved with better data standards which seem to be coming along nicely. More convergences are more goodness - why not go for the gusto? I think this is Google's broad vision and I think we'll see this in action soon.

on June 19, 2006 10:27 PM
# Bruce La Fetra said:

A collegue of mine, Mike Mace, takes a very interesting look at Microsoft vs. Adobe and what is at stake--it is a LOT more than PDF vs. Metro. Mike touches on only 1 of Jeremy's 3 points, but a credible threat to Windows is a threat to Microsoft's ability to generate cash and execute against the other 2.

on June 20, 2006 09:43 AM
# said:

I think that Microsoft is losing momentum.

I don't see way Google or other company can make those three.

on June 22, 2006 02:42 PM
# Andrew S said:

Microsoft has had at least three years to put a search box on their desktop. We've seen nothing. That's at least a billion dollars per year left on the table.

Microsoft has had four years to come up with a worthy competitor to the iTunes/iPod (by far, the most successful commercial consumer internet/desktop specialized application), and just can't seem to do it. That's about a billion dollars a year as well.

What makes you think this will change? How is Microsoft's culture different from what it was a year or two ago?

on June 28, 2006 10:42 PM
# Sumanth said:

Given that mainstream desktop applications like those in the Microsoft Office have a fairly well-developed lexicon for extension (through plug-ins/COM add-ins), integrating web functionality into these applications is not an unsurmountable challenge and can be done by anyone rather than being the preserve of just MS. The real challenge is probably finding the right balance between desktop applications and web functionality in an integrated environment.

I run a startup that is attempting to find this balance by letting users reside pre-dominantly in their existing desktop applications but allowing them to access web functionality at those specific points (from within the desktop application) that mandates sharing and participation (the classic Web empowerment dimensions).

I am sure that there are others who are attempting to do the same and there is no reason why users need to depend only on Microsoft (or a platform competitor like Adobe) to provide such integrated functionality...


on September 21, 2006 10:44 PM
# Larry said:

Quote from joat..."Microsoft specializes in innovation, not invention"

That's a nice way of saying that Microsoft "copies" and yes, I totally agree. That pretty much sums them up but they are also very slow.

JUST 1 EXAMPLE: They finally released IE7 after almost 6 years and all it really is, is a patch of IE6 (which was just a patch of IE5.5). When will they make it the right way; from the ground up!?

on January 10, 2007 11:20 PM
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