Can Microsoft Reclaim the Throne?

by Dave Michels

Not too long ago, Microsoft dominated my computing world. Before I started my own company, I was having a pretty decent run as an IT Management type drinking the MS Kool-Aide. It was good Kool-Aide. But lately, it appears the cup runneth dry.

The PC Mac debate in the 90s was fun from a corporate perspective – two words: “NO MACS!” They could not be easily supported and didn’t play well with all our corporate applications. Macs complicated everything from printing to security. It was an easy argument and the only ones that really got pissed off were the ponytails in marketing. Nothing wrong with that.

The desktop standard was functional and reasonable. XP was (is) very stable and supportable. Load the PC up with Office – particularly Outlook. People shared their calendars, synced their Blackberry’s, exchanged Word and Excel files and lulled us to sleep with their PowerPoints. I enjoyed pulling out Harvard Graphics. Wordperfect was mis-named. cc:mail was stupid. I never understood Notes. We had problems with security, but McAfee and Active Directory came along. It was all pretty simple. If we deviated from the Kool-Aide formula there was hell to pay. “I can’t open Joe’s calendar”, “My Palm won’t synchronize”, “someone sent me an attachment I can’t open”. IT management 101 – just ask “what would Bill do”? (Actually, it was best in breed which just happened to be the same answer).

But over the past few years, the Kool-Aide has gone rancid. One of the first things I did after leaving GE and starting my own company was buy a Mac TiBook. It was on the 3rd or so revision of OS X. People thought it was funny I had a Mac.

On a personal level I really enjoyed it. I really liked the email client, I loved being able to make PDFs right from the OS. Office was a bit different, but I got it. Entourage was terrible, but I found a 3rd party app that worked better for calendar and contacts. Life was good.

But my business was tightly coupled with Mitel and I had problems. Mitel’s web portal (back then) required PC IE. They offered some destkop apps that only worked on the PC. We also implemented Exchange and Outlook (primarily for calendaring and click to dial). Our CRM package only offered a PC client. Meanwhile I discovered that Mac’s weren’t cheap to maintain, and I had to keep on buying upgrades. Simultaneously, at the office we got some bulk licensing for MS products. So Office was available to me only on the PC. The TiBook started having hardware problems, so I was back to a PC and in many ways life was good, again.

I am still on a PC – Vista to be exact. Life is OK. But I have to say that the Microsoft story has dramatically changed. Office2007 is a disaster. The learning curve is too much. I use the Office applications everyday and still can’t figure things out. We just upgraded our Exchange Server to Exchange 2007 – that was an unpleasant and disruptive upgrade. Then there is Vista. Another sore spot in terms of performance, UAC, and yet another learning curve. I migrated to Mozilla for better performance and plug-ins. I have an MS Mobile phone which nicely syncs to Exchange (mail, contacts, and calendar), but MS Mobile provides a boring experience compared to current alternatives.

Alternatives? I got my wife a G1 phone. Her phone provides a great experience that can’t match mine. She has moved her email, contacts, and calendar to Google and gets excellent services for free (using the domain). She has excellent free virus and SPAM protection and of course excellent email search. She also created calendars for the kids (they don’t care, but she tracks their commitments such as music lessons on their calendars). She can easily view each calendar on her PC and phone (I can’t open other calendars on my phone). I installed a Google/Outlook calendar sync so she can actually view my calendar too. Since when do home users get better services than corporate users with serious MS infrastructure?

It has happened slowly, but Microsoft isn’t in the center of my world anymore. In fact, we bought some thin clients and even have one Mac in the office. Most things we do now are web based and we prefer Mozilla. The CRM client we now access via Microsoft Terminal Services. On my personal email account, I find myself viewing attachments with Google Docs rather than downloading and using my own copy of Office.

It seems the technorati have all moved to Macs. I am not so sure it is the love of the Mac or the eviction intent from Microsoft. MS basically said if you want to stick around, you have to deal with Vista and Office learning curves. Or go to the Mac and enjoy the older Office and a relatively stable and friendly OS. I get Apple, but I am not a Mac fan. I think they charge way too much and are way too proprietary (only Apple can make batteries and power cords proprietary). But they do deliver a superior experience, particularly if you are willing to pay and play in their walled garden. The same holds true for the iPhone.

Besides Office, my PC runs Mozilla, Skype, and Tweetdeck – all available on the Mac. The vast majority of my time seems to be spent in Mozilla. I use Gmail and Outlook email clients, and find my Gmail experience much more satisfying. I sense a growing resentment against Exchange because other platforms appear so much easier to use and maintain.

So if the desktop OS is becoming less significant (due to web based appls), and the browser is the predominant app (platform independent), and Office has lost its lock, and MS Mobile offers no advantage, and Exchange is losing its appeal – Does Microsoft matter any more? I am not suggesting they are going away, they are a huge company with a long life ahead, but do they matter from a strategy perspective any more?

If I was still in Fortune500 IT Leadership role, I think I would have a tough time with those yesteryear battles. Today, I would insist internal apps be web based, and I would probably still be nurturing Office2003 with a heavy eye toward Office alternatives. I would probably still be on XP, but that is looking pretty old now and with the continual threat of end of life, I would likely be pushing thin clients and netbooks with an infrastructure geared toward mobility. On the server side, I would be looking toward the clouds for servers – likely Linux based. For directory management and security, I am not sure – but without MS desktops and apps everywhere I doubt Active Directory wins. It is difficult to imagine Microsoft on top of my list for any particular element, much less the entire architecture.

My how things change.