Mix'08 Review: How Microsoft Is Fighting a War on Three Fronts

mix08.pngMicrosoft is fighting a war — one in which it’s being attacked on three sides. Cut through the flurry of announcements out of its Mix conference this week and what emerges is the Redmond giant’s three-pronged defense strategy: consumer, enterprise and developer. Only by understanding the battles Microsoft is fighting does it become clear where the company is headed. So we’ve broken it out for you here.

The consumer attack

The front: Desktops, handsets and consoles. Flanked by Apple’s cooler desktops and devices, Google’s insight into users, and the Nintendo/Sony console world, Microsoft is struggling. Windows Mobile isn’t a consumer handset like the iPhone. Live hasn’t really taken off. Vista flopped, with the company embroiled in claims that it overstated the number of machines on which it would run. And the Xbox, despite its success, has an alarmingly high recall rate. Perhaps most frighteningly, it’s becoming clear that when it comes to consumers, advertising is paying for it all (what Chris Anderson calls the “freeconomy”). But Microsoft isn’t plugged into that ad stream.

The defense: One OS to rule them all. Users have dozens of devices, and Ray Ozzie wants them all to work seamlessly together. Expect Danger, Zune, Xbox and Vista to share and synchronize automatically. Carriers and labels will love it. Consumers will settle for it. And once they’ve got a central identity, they’ll be able to carry their desktop applications (with varying degrees of functionality) from their desk, to their car, to their hip, to their sofa.

But how to pay for it? What Microsoft needs is an ad network like Yahoo, and media formats like Silverlight that lure advertisers. Ballmer’s clearly not resistant to the concept of advertising: In an on-stage Mix interview with Guy Kawasaki, he performed a mini-monkeyboy dance, only to demand of the person who had requested the jig: “If your buddy behind you just gave you a buck, I want 50 cents.” He knows where his consumer revenue’s coming from down the road.

The enterprise attack

The front: On-demand apps and a mobile workforce. Salesforce.com has gone from a turnkey contact manager to a full-fledged ecosystem for developing CRM applications. Amazon lets hundreds of upstarts build project planning, accounting, word processing, messaging and more — apps that traditionally filled Microsoft’s coffers. Standards like OpenID give interoperability without buying a suite. As companies realize the inevitability of on-demand computing, Microsoft has to completely change its business model. And on the mobile front, Windows Mobile can’t hold a candle to the BlackBerry.

The defense: Connected productivity and an easy move into the cloud. Expect the firm to retrench on mobility. Exchange still holds the bulk of business users’ internal relationships. More and more, it’s focusing on workflows and business process. Moving those processes between the enterprise server, the mobile device and the web — seamlessly — would be a big win that companies will love. With Danger, Windows Mobile can stop being a tweener and go after Research In Motion. And Microsoft’s asp.net architecture is still the easiest way for its legions of developers to build online applications.

When companies are ready to port their data centers into the cloud, Microsoft will make the transition as painless and transparent as possible using Windows Live Storage, SQL Server Data Center Services, and other services with codenames like CloudDB, Horizon, and Live Core that execs are still tight-lipped about.

The developer attack

The front: Open source, web apps and video. The thing Bill’s always done right is focus on developers. He put in functions. He opened up APIs. He showered them with development resources. And it worked. But today, we have Sourceforge for snippets of code. Eclipse gives ActiveVisual Studio a run for its money. We built Web 2.0 with Flash, AJAX, Ruby, Python — the language of the web isn’t .net, and it hurts. When it comes to video, Microsoft’s Silverlight seduces content providers with tracking and ad support, but we’ve already built those things out of Flash ourselves. And Microsoft’s notoriously long release cycle for Longhorn impacted its ability to react to market changes.

The defense: New Lego. Remember old Lego, which only had a few pieces? You had to carefully build the front of a spaceship from thin rectangles and dozens of identical bricks. But new Lego is different. There’s a single piece for the front of the spaceship. And while old-school Lego types cry foul, now pretty much anyone can build a spaceship.

That’s Microsoft. New features in Internet Explorer 8, working in concert with the company’s web servers, will make it easy to drag-and-drop sex appeal into the application without needing much talent. And enterprise developers will embrace it, as they always do, because it’s easy. Things like Feedsync and Sliverlight will make it that way. Even the Popfly site makes anyone who can drag a mouse a coder, performance be damned. By breaking the software into services, there will be less delay between releases, which should fix the Longhorn drought.

How will the battle go?

Mix08 was an upbeat event.  But read between the lines, and it’s clear that the company is bracing for a fight from several sides at once. Don’t write off Microsoft: We were here once before, when Netscape was going to put the company out of business. But Gates issued an edict, the company turned on a dime, and a few years later IE was the dominant web browser.

But you never want to fight a war on multiple fronts, and that’s what Microsoft faces in battles for consumers, enterprises and developers. If it survives, the Microsoft of tomorrow will be a very different company.

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