As part of the launch event for Windows Server, Visual Studio and SQL, I got a chance to sit down with one of the early adopters for this technology. The organization will be using this technology, and Silverlight, as its new organizational standard. What it apparently is yanking out is Linux (don't ask me which version because I just thought of that question a second ago).
I spent 30 minutes trying to figure out why the San Diego Zoo was making this move; it is a not-for-profit organization that would typically be a poster child for Linux, not Microsoft. My feeling in doing the interview was that this was kind of like Hillary Clinton suddenly endorsing John McCain, and I wanted to make sure I was really understanding and not somehow hallucinating the entire thing.
Let me walk you through what I found out and how I think they got there. I wasn't going to write this up until the project was complete, but I had kind of a revelation while thinking about this that made it pertinent today: For most folks, it really isn't about the product, and I, of all people, should always remember that.
San Diego Zoo
The San Diego Zoo is one of the largest zoos in the world and it takes its job -- the preservation and study of the animals in its care, many of which are apparently extinct in the wild -- very seriously. Much of its focus these days is on trying to breed captive animals to high enough numbers so they can be reintroduced into the wild. I can think of few things more heroic.
As part of this, the zoo views visitors as not just customers out for a good time, but potential advocates for conservation, specifically with a focus on animal protection. Every dollar the zoo spends on IT is a dollar it doesn't have to spend on saving animals. All IT organizations focus on costs; few have this level of motivation to do so.
On the other hand, the zoo needs technology to keep people engaged and providing the funds to save the animals.
In other words, having a technology religion for or against open source or Microsoft simply can't gain a foothold because the zoo is fully engaged in its primary task. Technology from anyone has to fit that task.
The two people I spoke to from the zoo were CTO Robert Erhardt (he and I both used to work at Disney) and Ted Molter, the director of marketing. The keystone project was marketing focused, but it was part of a strategy to remove Linux and replace it across the organization with Windows.
The Keystone Project
A keystone project is one that forms the basis for a much larger change. In this case, the project was to connect people remote from the zoo in such a way that the entire experience would not only transcend their physical presence at the zoo but be a larger part of their lives.
This is an expansion and modification to a successful earlier offering that connected people to certain animals (like baby pandas) that have broad appeal and can form the basis for a relationship with the zoo.
The project has elements that allow the user to plan a trip at the zoo and then, using a bar code printed during the planning process, get special information from zoo kiosks. Video and social elements allow people to experience parts of the zoo even if they never visit or can't return for extended periods of time. It is in these video elements where the critical nature of Silverlight worked its way onto the requirements list. (As a side note, I'm starting to think Silverlight and Adobe Air will have a much broader impact than we currently imagine.)
Windows Wasn't Cheaper, It Just Worked
One of the first questions I asked was whether Windows Server was cheaper. They said no, but it was constantly trending down in their mixed shop. Linux was more steady and they could see a time when Windows Server would be cheaper. They did seem to feel it would end up being cheaper if they consolidated on Linux or Windows Server.
However, they couldn't get what they wanted with a Linux solution. It wasn't that there weren't things that could work; it was that the heavy lifting to get it to work and then support the result was beyond the level of commitment they were willing to make.
In short, they could see a near-term solution with Windows and related tools, and a long, painful process with Linux. In other words, Windows was declining in cost and would do the job on this critical project. And they would save money if they were on one platform, so Windows will eventually be their new standard platform.
Wrapping Up: The Product Isn't the Important Part
There is a lesson here for Microsoft and most other vendors that think they live and die on speeds and feeds. Buyers don't buy speeds and feeds; they buy solutions that meet their needs. I'm willing to bet that behind this decision is a very talented, and probably under-appreciated, Microsoft team who made sure the San Diego Zoo's needs were met. More than the product, this team and their San Diego Zoo counterparts were the key to getting this result.
Steve Ballmer showed a chart that stuck with me; it showed that SQL outperformed Oracle, but he clearly didn't seem to realize that the reason Oracle beats Microsoft has nothing to do with product. The reason it wins is that it takes better care of its customers. When you combine leading products with leading customer care, you get true magic. I think that was represented by the San Diego Zoo project.
Anyone, including Microsoft, that can scale this combination of products and customer care will be nearly impossible to beat. The Heroes Happen Here concept has the potential to do exactly that, but only if folks like Microsoft's own CEO truly get on board.
Finally, the San Diego Zoo project isn't deployed yet, and until it is, the outcome remains uncertain. I've been promised a follow-up interview after deployment and I'll let you know what I find out. Until then, remember that "no battle plan survives contact with the enemy." We will likely revisit this saying then.