Tag Archives: cloud

Microsoft Innovation

Although some wags may wish to claim Microsoft does not innovate, that is not at all true. Microsoft does innovate, but not always successfully. There are two reasons I have noticed for this.

The first is that they have a large installed base and a large market for upgrades that they are always trying to protect. that means they don’t want to innovate in ways that endanger their “cash cows”, which are Windows, and even more so, Office. And if you have read the classic work The Innovator’s Dilemma, by Clayton M. Christensen, you will recognize that this sets them up for an eventual fall when a disruptive innovation comes along. In fact, Windows is probably facing a disruptive innovation in the form of mobile, particularly tablets. And what is ironic about this is that for years Microsoft was the main and seemingly only promoter of tablets. Why did they get into this situation? Because they wanted tablets that fit into their paradigm of the Windows computer. ¬†And in the other part of mobile, the cell phone market, it is clear that Microsoft is at best the third horse in a two horse race. Yet people who have used the latest Windows Phone 7 say it is slick and matches up well with iOS and Android.

But when their backs are to the wall, they can certainly innovate. An early example of this was in Web browsers. When Mark Andreesen incautiously declared that Netscape’s ambition was to replace the OS, Bill Gates was able to turn Microsoft around fairly quickly and produce a better browser. They also engaged in anti-competitive and illegal practices, as determined by a U.S. Federal Court, but we should never lose sight of the fact that by the time of IE4 Microsoft was offering a better browser than Netscape. The problem is that once they had dispatched Netscape the whole browser ¬†operation seemed to go into hibernation. This let Netscape’s successor, Firefox, come along and grab both market share and mind share. And since then Google Chrome has looked likely to overtake both of them. This threat has stimulated innovation again, though whether it is too little, too late is a major question. But IE9 is a credible alternative to Chrome and Firefox, and is notably standards-compliant.

One of the big problems Microsoft has is that it does not know how to sell the idea of its software innovations very well. The joke about this is that if Microsoft went into the sushi business, they would market their product as “cold, dead, raw fish”. Mmmm, yummy.

What brings on this observation is that Microsoft has what may be a genuinely innovative and useful product that almost no one knows about, and that is Sharepoint. This product is something that aids collaboration, is business-oriented, and can tie together a lot of separate products. It could be connected to all of Office, including Outlook, to create a product that wold get Microsoft back into the mobile/tablet market successfully. Right now iPads, and increasingly Android tablets, are coming into business environments despite being completely unsuited to that task. Microsoft is an Enterprise computing vendor that should have all of the natural advantages here, but it looks like they will give away this market through inaction.

Is Office Software Obsolete?

One of the audio podcasts I listen to is This Week In Google, which despite the name actually covers everything cloud-related, not just Google. It is a very interesting podcast, with Gina Trapani, Jeff Jarvis, and Leo Laporte. In this particular episode, Leo asked the others what they used for most of their writing. In each case, it was some kind of online application, not a conventional word processor like Microsoft Word, WordPerfect, or OpenOffice.org Writer. Jeff Jarvis did allow that he had to use Microsoft word when he wrote the book, but he did phrase it as he “had to use it.” It really did sound as if he would have preferred to use something else. Gina Trapani is writing a book right now, on Google Wave, and is doing it all in a wiki that is open to others.

I think that for some things there is no real replacement for the power of a desktop program. As I mentioned in a previous post, I had a contract once at a large legal practice, and I can assure you that lawyers will not be using Google Docs any time soon to write their legal papers. And there are very real questions about security if your documents are online. Plus, you have to consider that having things online can present problems if anything happens to your Internet access or the remote servers. You would be cut off from access to your files.

A lot of pundits have taken these objections as evidence that online software will “never” replace desktop programs. I am not sure. I think there are other facts that these pundits overlook. The first is that online software will continue to be developed. The feature list of desktop software is so rich now that there really isn’t a lot left for them to do. The major new feature of Office 2007, for example, was the Ribbon, and that has received more criticism than praise as far as I can tell. The other major change is in file formats, which is not something most users care about at all. So I think online software can catch up by virtue of the fact that desktop software is pretty much at a dead end.

The second point that we need to consider is how technology will change in the next few years. Most folks have heard about Moore’s Law, which is about how processors will double in capability every 18 months or so. In fact, this type of exponential growth is not restricted to just processors. All technology is growing exponentially. Each new generation of wireless is approximately 10 times faster than the previous generation. Broadband speeds are growing, and so on. Technical barriers to “cloud” software that we see today we possibly won’t see in 2-3 years as the technology improves.

The final point to consider is that these changes often happen rather quickly when a tipping point is reached. There is a technical term, hysteresis, which we could use here. What this means is that a smooth change in the technical and economic parameters can appear to have no effect for a period of time, and then in a fairly short time frame everything changes. I suspect the change from desktop office software to online “cloud” equivalents will probably display this type of behavior. Clearly the online software has an economic advantage, since most of it is free. And online does have advantages in a world where increasingly people want to have access to all of their data all of the time, no matter where they are. We may well see a sudden shift when everything lines up to make the online applications preferable.

One last point is that this will not mean that desktop office software disappears, only that it will not be the dominant way documents, spreadsheets, and presentations are created.