Just Like IBM

Microsoft's mission statement used to be as simple as it was, at the time, almost too forward looking: "A computer on every desk and in every home." Over the years, of course, this prediction wasn't so much ludicrous as it was prescient and inevitable. Such is the pace of the tech industry of which we are all a part.

Over time, Microsoft's mission statement was changed, not so subtly, to, "a computer on every desk and in every home, running Microsoft software." This bit of additional hubris had its effect, and while Microsoft got what it wanted, it's also living with the antitrust ramifications of that wish fulfillment as well.

Today, Microsoft's mission statement is as ambiguous and dull as the much larger company that created it. The company seeks to "help people and businesses throughout the world realize their true potential."


Give Microsoft credit for one thing here: The new mission statement neatly removes any references to desks, which made its original mission statement, over time, seem out of touch rather than forward-looking. The computing world has changed, as have the ways in which users discover and consume computing resources. Today and going forward, computing is mobile and defined by anywhere/anytime access to data. And increasingly, it involves devices--smart phones, of course, but also mobile Internet devices (MIDs) that are bigger than phones but smaller than traditional notebooks--that are more Star Trek than Redmond, circa 1985.

Microsoft is trying to find a way into this new playground. Last week, it unveiled sweeping new cloud-hosted environments, such as Windows Azure--which is sort of, but not quite Windows Server in the cloud--and SQL Azure--which is much more easily explained since it looks and works a lot like traditional SQL Server.

Microsoft's moves into the cloud can be seen as tentative or bold, depending on your perspective. They're tentative because Microsoft seems to have trouble thinking outside of the old model. For a simple example, I present the web-based Outlook Web App, which must look and work as much like the desktop version of Outlook as possible to be seen as successful. But no one at Microsoft has apparently thought to question whether the decade-old Outlook has outlived its usefulness and, perhaps, can and should be replaced by something more streamlined and efficient. (That Microsoft still calls Outlook meeting requests "Schedule+'s" is, of course, both funny and sad.)

But Microsoft's cloud moves are also ambitious. That the staid old company is moving with such alacrity into the cloud--all while maintaining its traditional desktop and server solutions and offering a unique and, yes, innovative hybrid model that combines cloud and on-site solutions--is notable. Many expect Microsoft to dry and up and fall neatly into the IBM model, where it becomes a huge, successful and almost universally boring behemoth that services enterprises only. And you know, this may still happen. But give Microsoft some credit. It's going kicking and screaming into this future and is trying to prove that it still has its old competitive mojo.

The problem for Microsoft, as I see it, is that no one is noticing. Take a step outside the comfortable and insular Microsoft-centric place in which many of us live and you will find a world that is largely at odds with the software giant. You will see kids and teenagers growing up on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. People who consider the PC--and the phone--as nothing more than a necessary conduit between them and the online services and cloud-stored data that they care about. This coming generation will enter higher education and then the workforce and expect the same computing environment they grew up with, just as we did.

(Even I, an admittedly older PC user, often joke about the many years I worked with computers before the Internet, because I certainly spent an unhealthy amount of time typing away, but I can't for the life of me remember what it was that I was doing. Can you even imagine a disconnected world like that anymore? )

Last week, Google finally unveiled its Chrome OS, which won't ship for a year and will only be sold with a new generation of always-connected netbooks. (I've written a lengthy preview of Google Chrome OS if you're curious about this system.) On the surface, this OS seems like a joke, a sad non-competitor to Windows that will never amount to anything and can safely be ignored. But Chrome OS is nothing less than Google's D-Day invasion of Microsoft, a system that goes after the fastest-growing part of the PC market.

Yes, Chrome OS may look small and slightly out of touch compared to the feature-rich and powerful PC operating environments we're all used to today. But then so did the MS-DOS and Windows versions of 25 years ago. The tech industry is always evolving, and right now it's evolving to the cloud. And while Microsoft has the tools and services in place to begin servicing big business in that cloud, it has nothing--absolutely nothing--of interest for consumers.

Microsoft is, in other words, just like IBM.

Just like IBM.

An edited version of this article appeared in the November 24, 2009 issue of Windows IT Pro UPDATE. --Paul