Why Microsoft Can't Figure Out What's Next

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If you haven't noticed, Microsoft has done a pretty good job with its core products lately: Windows 7, Office 2010, SharePoint 2010, Windows Server 2008 R2, and Visual Studio 2010 are all fine pieces of work. The Vista debacle seems like ancient history.

Unfortunately for Redmond, customers have been trying for years to escape the old desktop upgrade treadmill, which Microsoft still relies on for the bulk of its revenue. And while I believe the personalized desktop metaphor will persist for the foreseeable future, the argument for tying that user-customized environment to a particular desktop or laptop gets weaker every day.

[ Also on InfoWorld: Neil McAllister finds Microsoft Office Web Apps limited, mediocre, dismal. | Galen Gruman helps make sense of Microsoft's mobile OS four-way. | Plus, do Google Apps and desktop virtualization foretell the rebirth of the desktop PC? ]

Look toward the future, and you see mobile computing, the cloud, and desktop virtualization. And it has to be said: In these areas, Microsoft has challenges of stupendous proportions.

Mobile Mistakes

Microsoft's failure to create a successful downsized version of Windows for mobile devices is the stuff of legend. The all-new Windows Phone 7 announced in February, a complete break from Windows Mobile versions of the past, acknowledged that a fresh start was necessary.

As InfoWorld executive editor Galen Gruman observed in a post last week, Microsoft now has no fewer than four solutions for mobile devices: Windows 7 (for tablets), Windows Embedded Compact 7, Windows Phone (Kin), and Windows Phone 7.

Will any of them achieve critical mass? As Galen notes, the touch interface for Windows 7 isn't up to par for iPad competitors -- which is why HP decided not to use it for its upcoming slate. Windows Embedded Compact 7 has more potential, but it's designed to be adapted to specific devices, so apps written for one Embedded Compact 7 device may not run on another. And Kin? Fuggedaboutit.

Which leaves us with Windows Phone 7. This is Microsoft's Great White Hope for smartphones. But developing for Phone 7 means using Silverlight, which could make it hard to exploit the native features of individual devices. Plus, the first Windows Phone 7 devices aren't expected until the 2010 holiday season. It's already late to be introducing a new smartphone platform to compete with iPhone and Android.

Lost in the Cloud

The endless Microsoft dithering over the cloud has to stop. At Microsoft's PDC 2008, I was thrilled by the twin announcements of Azure and Office Web Apps. The Azure platform promised an ultra-rich development and deployment environment in the cloud -- but 20 months later, it still hasn't gotten off the ground. Office Web Apps looked pretty good in a pre-alpha glimpse -- but as Neil McAllister noted in last week's review, these pale browser-based reflections of Word, Excel, and PowerPoint fall short of their counterparts in Google Docs.

Are they even meant to be better? The fear of cannibalizing PC-based Microsoft software with Web applications persists. Take Microsoft's Business Productivity Online Suite (BPOS), which delivers Microsoft-hosted versions of Exchange, SharePoint, Live Meeting, and Communications. The price sounds good, starting at $10 per user per month. But Google Apps Professional costs less than half as much at $50 per user per year -- and includes Gmail, Google Docs, and Google Sites (meant to compete with SharePoint), all of it covered by a 99.9 percent uptime SLA.

BPOS includes a 99.9 percent uptime SLA, too -- but Office Web Apps doesn't come with the package. Sure, you can get Web Apps free from Office.Live.com, but with no SLA whatsoever. Or you have the option of serving up Office Web Apps from your own servers, but only if you've gotten Microsoft Office 2010 through a Volume Licensing program and deploy Microsoft SharePoint Foundation 2010. In other words (unless you go to the Live site for Office Web Apps), you have to license the fatware to get the webware.

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