Microsoft seem keen to embrace Web 2.0 and Service-Oriented Architecture (SOA), despite the fact it’s bungled opportunities for innovation in the past.

Microsoft have made a few statements recently that suggest SaaS and SOA are on its mind, whisperings like this abound and finally a couple of days ago Microsoft stopped being coy about its plans and made a statement.

With Microsoft wading in, does this mean we have to take cloud computing seriously?  I think it does.  What does this have to do with the inability to right-click in Microsoft’s development platform Silverlight?  Why do I randomly bring that one up?  We’ll discuss that later.

I’m going to take you back a few years to illustrate why Microsoft has hit the ball out of the park by taking cloud computing seriously.

Back in the day, most people thought Apple had a good thing going with its market-leading hardware and operating system:

Apple's model

Apple

If people wanted the Operating System, they had to buy into the Mac – and vice-versa.  What could possibly go wrong?  Well we all know what did go wrong for Apple:

Microsoft's model

Microsoft

By positioning itself primarily as an Operating System and Software manufacturer, Microsoft pulled off its now infamous coup de grace: allowing other vendors to supply the hardware increased competition and drove down the price of the hardware.  If you wanted a cheap computer, you didn’t buy an Apple.  So you ended up tied to Microsoft’s operating system and got sold its software, which rapidly became ubiquitous.  Microsoft leap-frogged Apple, positioned itself higher up the food chain and strangled Apple in the process.

Microsoft have had that smug grin on their face ever since.  The one company that’s made that smile waver is Google:

Google's model

Google

The Internet was another rung on the ladder – Microsoft anticipated it but despite successes with their Internet Explorer browser failed to capture the hearts of Internet users after Google scored a sneaky goal by dominating the search market.  There’s enough room in the system for Apple to have a place on the bottom, and there’s more than enough for Microsoft higher up, but Google had now decisively leapfrogged Microsoft.  Despite still wearing that smug grin, Microsoft has been irritated at Google’s share of the expanding market; it does not want to be left behind.  Which is why this has made them a bit happier:

Google's market

Google

It’s made them happier because it hasn’t really worked.  Google have tried to extend their presence into more cloud computing services and they’ve pretty much failed.  Sure, web-based mail has been succesful, but everyone’s got a piece of that and it’s more of a utility than a way of life; a few scattered tools on the web hardly look to challenge Microsoft’s domination of the operating system and software market and neither do they look like much of a missed opportunity (yet).

The whole point of having a platform is that you can use it to roll out your real money-spinners.  Apple used their Mac platform to roll out their OS.  Microsoft used their OS to roll out their software.  Google has dominated the Internet platform with its search engine, but the nature of the technology means that Google can’t use it to sell people anything else.  It earns vast revenue itself through advertising, sure, but Google wants more.  And why not?  It would be the equivalent of Microsoft saying: “Sure, we’ve built Windows, and that makes enough money – let’s not bother trying to sell people Word.”

This is why Google took the natural step and tried selling people on Google apps.  But the problem is that their tools are treated more like fanciful games by most Internet users, not the integral way of life that software like the Office suite has become.  So where does the problem lie?  The problem is with the Internet; it’s too big, Internet users aren’t loyal and they surf about like gadflies.  Google might control it but it’s not really a platform for rolling out web services; it’s too diaphanous.  There is a solution, but it’s difficult to grasp it.  This is the model that had slowly been appearing in the minds of Microsoft and Google:

The Future?

The Future?

(Of course I have over-simplified here: cloud computing will not kill traditional software and Operating Systems, but I believe it will reduce their share of the market considerably.)

Just like the Windows operating system crystallised a bunch of messy code in the minds of users with a user interface that then made software accessible, so a web-based OS should organise the mess of the web into something manageable for the average user.  And it will be a real platform for rolling out web services.

Of course, we’re talking about a conceptual operating system here: users will still need something to boot up their PC!  The way we’re moving, however, it looks like the user-interface and backbone that drives the software will be web-based.  It makes sense.

Isn’t that just an internet browser?  Well, not really.  Google’s Chrome seems developed with web services in mind, with all its accoutrements and javascript powerhouse, but it’s not exactly revolutionary, and neither is it an operating system to drive SaaS applications.

Microsoft are going to try and do to themselves what they did to Apple: leapfrog the market, leave the market free beneath them and thus open up competition below to channel more consumers up the funnel towards their new base.

Something that tells me very strongly that they have this in mind?  The inability to right-click in Silverlight!  If Microsoft are so keen to be a part of Cloud Computing, why have they irritated every programmer in the land by making right-clicks ineffective? (The developers at The Web Service are not happy.  Typical quote:

Why have they disabled right click when Mac users make up 5% of the computing population and only 5% of those have a one-button mouse?  You might as well deliver software to everyone as a book because not everyone has a computer!

Well, it might seem a bit bizarre at first, but this is what I reckon:

Microsoft want to make their cloud computing platform and software as accessible to as many Internet users as is humanly possible, even if that means limiting the applications.

Why?  Simple: They plan on leap-frogging once again, this time into the cloud, and they know they will leave behind their earth-based operating system.  Like they did before, they will move up a level, make a cloud-based operating system that is accessible to all, and will gain mass adoption.   People will abandon Windows XP, Vista and whatever earth-bound incarnation of Windows 7 is around.  They’ll most probably use Linux instead (it will be one hell of a lot cheaper); all the stuff they’ll be interested in, the UI, cuddly bits and what makes their web-based software work will be fed to them through the cloud.

Microsoft knows they’re having to move house and wants to be sure of capturing the new market further up the ladder before the old one decays and withers away.  So they’re trying to do what they did with Windows and make their first steps into a cloud-based OS ubiquitous by letting as many people as possible hook into it.  Then, once more, they’ll be unmoveable.

Maybe that’s too much to read into from one functionality problem with Silverlight, but this sort of thing never stopped Columbo.

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