Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Microsoft's Role Is Not to Innovate... But That's OK

I was reviewing yesterday's coverage of the Microsoft Azure platform for cloud computing and trying to decide what to make of it. I was admittedly underwhelmed, but I really didn't think that was appropriate to write, because it is obviously a major piece of engineering, and it is indeed solving a relevant problem.

After thinking about it, I realized why I had the reaction I did. I have an expectation that Microsoft *should* innovate. After all Bill Gates talks much about "innovation". But despite the fact that Microsoft presents itself as an innovator, anyone paying close attention knows this is not true. Microsoft is not an innovator. But the truth is they have an important, and perhaps even more difficult job. Microsoft provides more infrastructure for computing than any other company. And infrastructure just isn't sexy.

Azure is perhaps the perfect example of this. Despite a bit of fawning over it from some people that can't help but fawn over all things Microsoft, the truth is it isn't that exciting. But that does not mean it is not important.

Essentially, what Azure is is a collection of web-based services that make it possible to take applications built with the Microsoft stack and move them to the cloud. This is plumbing. It is foundational. But it is not at all exciting. There is little that comes from this that will create new categories of applications, or that will cause us to think differently about what cloud based applications can offer us. But Azure will let millions of people move what they are doing right now onto the cloud.

For me that is not exciting. But that says more about me than it does about the importance of their work. Because for all those people developing applications that want an easy way to get their apps into the cloud, Azure is a godsend.

This brings me back to my core point. Microsoft is not in the business of showing us how to do new things. They are in the business of providing broad platforms for us to do things. These are platforms that can make us feel, by virtue of familiarity, safe and comfortable. And they are platforms that, if you are part of the Microsoft "Visual" religion, are very easy to adopt.

Comparing Microsoft to Apple, they are in very different businesses. Microsoft is about broad ubiquitous platforms, and Apple is about limited but perfected platforms. That's not to say that Apple ever achieves perfection. But Apple is more focused on experience and is wholly uninterested in breadth. Microsoft must, by virtue of its broad customer base, always sacrifice innovation and experience, in favor of bringing everybody along for the ride.

And so Azure, as a platform for bringing everybody along, will be a smashing success. But as a paradigm shifting platform for computing, not so much. As I see it that is a reasonable, even needed trade-off.


  1. Well re-branded and marketing of the old stuff is what this Azure platform is. When you look at the plumbing as you state, the stuff is twenty five years old and there is nothing different about it. Maybe add a different skin to make it look nice.It is like a Nip and Tuck of the body to freshen it up.
    What does it mean for shareholders really, for themoney spent on marketing I wonder if there is anyvalue. As you state we shall see if it brings everybody along further.

  2. For another perspective on whether Microsoft innovates, see my July post, "Getting pretty tired of the 'Microsoft doesn't innovate' zeitgeist" -- http://stevemurch.typepad.com/blog/2008/07/getting-pretty-tired-of-the-microsoft-doesnt-innovate-zeitgeist.html

  3. Interesting read Steve. Of course I don't think it quite matches to what I am saying here, which is actually, I think acknowledging the important, if unexciting role that MS plays. Perhaps I could have said "microsoft doesnt do generally exciting stuff", instead of MS doesnt innovate, because really, in the way you define it, everyone innovates. But I rarely get all hot and bothered at a new microsoft announcement. But that doesnt mean those announcements arent often really important.

  4. Yes, I often think this myself... Microsoft really doesn't innovate, but that's not such a big deal in itself, like you said:

    "They are in the business of providing broad platforms for us to do things. These are platforms that can make us feel, by virtue of familiarity, safe and comfortable"

    Although... what would excite you? =P what kind of computing announcement from Microsoft would, 'overwhelm' you?

  5. So for the sake of making money by one giant monopoly company, innovation and technological advancement should be compromised?

    As being on the front edge, MS has big responsibility to shape our computing innovation and advancement or let others contribute for the better of technological advancement.

    It is obvious that powerful businesses will kill/suppress great innovation that will lead the destruction of their businesses. This is a fact when it comes to MS, as shown by it not being innovative and killing any the next shiny thing that would pose risk for its business.

    If MS is in the business of providing broad platforms, then why on earth they haven't made it advanced? Or why haven't they provided us with a cheap computing platform? (Hardware prices have been declined, but we never saw that happening from MS) Why MS force us to throw a valuable and working system every now and then? (Throw XP and buy Vista, throw Vista and buy Win 7) …

    There is one answer for the above questions; it is MS business model, a business model that mainly tied to making money, making money... Nothing wrong with making money, but since it is driven by greed and wrong and evil business model, in my opinion technological advancement has really been stalled or may be even dragged back.

    Being said that, the concept of cloud computing is not new; it has been out there since in 1960’s. The main idea is somehow computation is organized as a public utility (like electricity utility) at the current time it is possible to do that, but it is a killer of businesses like MS business. (Don’t get confused with software as a service with cloud computing; in fact here is how I see it on a cloud computing platform one can provide software as a service)


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