I'm at the Microsoft PDC, the Professional Developers Conference, this week. The opening keynote was on a new Windows platform, Windows Azure, though I spent Sunday being trained on the latest update to the oldest Windows platform, now coming in its 7th version and creatively called Windows 7. It appears the nearly always intoxicated Windows naming team was working on Azure and someone pushed out a name that actually made sense for the desktop. I'm sure that it is someone's top priority to make Windows 8's name Windows Puce. We'll pray not.
Both of these products are solidly focused on competitors. Windows 7 is focused on Apple and fixing Windows Vista issues. Windows Azure is focused on Google and others building cloud-based platforms and putting Microsoft into consideration for cloud-based solutions.
Windows Azure: The Virtual Mainframe
Having followed the technology market for the better part of three decades, it is amazing to me how often this market comes back to an idea that at one time was thought to be obsolete.
The problem with mainframes was that IBM collapsed its leasing programs, which ensured the platform could never be replaced and the products were incredible closed, inflexible and expensive. On the other hand, there was nothing else that could scale like a mainframe, or be more secure or more reliable. The mainframe's benefits have always been incredibly attractive.
The cloud, SaaS and SOA all approach the concept of a mainframe but often the problem is scaling, particularly if the platform is Windows. What Azure is designed to address is this scalability requirement. That thought took me back to Microsoft's Scalability day around a decade ago. Then, Microsoft was clearly not ready for the scalability the market wanted but not yet aware that it couldn't deliver. But a decade is a long time and the capabilities of Microsoft's platforms and its knowledge of what is required should now be up to the task.
Granted, this is early on, and the proof points are hard to find. Azure should be used by those firms comfortable with being early adopters; mainstream firms should hold off until we can see how well these initial deployments actually went.
This is a major change for the company, one that truly represents the executive change-out placing Ray Ozzie on Bill Gates' software position. Coupled with Geneva, the most aggressive federated identity system I have ever seen, this suggests we truly are seeing the beginning of a Microsoft that is now more off the desktop than on. It also approaches and possibly exceeds the scalability goals set a decade ago and at one time owned by companies like IBM.
Windows 7: Born from Focus
I can recall a scene from the movie Tora, Tora, Tora, which was about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. After the attack, the Japanese admiral wondered whether they had delivered the planned crushing blow or just awakened the sleeping giant. As it turned out, it was the latter, and Japan got trounced. One of the unofficial rules of Silicon Valley is that you can certainly attack Microsoft, but you don't want to piss it off so much that it focuses on you. Microsoft is more powerful than a number of countries and riling it typically doesn't end well for competing firms. Even IBM has discovered this, and somewhere in California, there is a graveyard of smaller firms that forgot that advice.
Apple, with its Mac vs. PC campaign, has gone farther to upset Microsoft than any other company. It disparaged the product, made fun (in a bad way) of the founder, and implied Microsoft employees were stupid and that Microsoft customers were stupider still. It fell short of shooting the Microsoft employees' dogs or disrespecting their mothers, but to say that this massive company is pissed would be a huge understatement.
The beneficiary of this is Windows 7. It is backed by a development leadership hand-picked from the cream of talent, both within and outside of Microsoft, and is focused on making the offering the kind of Mac killer that hasn't existed in any form since the early '90s and probably has never existed with this level of passion.
I'll devote a post to Windows 7 next time, but take into account that this isn't Vista. Windows 7 is the passion and anger of Microsoft pushed into a product and made into a statement targeted at Apple. That statement is "enough."
One of the things that Microsoft has lacked for much of the last decade is focused passion. For a long time, Microsoft has felt that it was secure in its dominance, and had somehow fallen into semi-retirement. Google and Apple have awakened the sleeping giant. Windows Azure and especially Windows 7 reflect the return of passion into the organization. The employees are fired up and organized, and the management team is actually being effective at driving them. Right now, this passion and focus, largely started in the server and tools group, has clearly spread to the desktop operating systems group, and appears ready to spread to the rest of the company. If that happens, we truly will see a different Microsoft combining the passion of the past with the power of the present.