Microsoft Takes on the Competition

David Tan
A couple of weeks ago, 15,000 Microsoft partners from around the world gathered in downtown Los Angeles for the annual Microsoft Worldwide Partner Conference. This event, held each July, is Microsoft's opportunity to connect with partners, talk business and strategy, and layout its vision for the next 12 months. It's always a high-energy event with partners coming away focused and revamped about their businesses. This year was no different. There was some unique content this year, and I think a deeper look reveals a lot about how Microsoft has changed in recent years.

The highlights of the four-day event are the keynote speeches, held each morning. Microsoft trots out every high-level executive in the company to talk to the partners, including CEO Steve Ballmer and COO Kevin Turner.  Having this level of access to the higher-ups (even if it was in the Staples Center with 15,000 other people) makes partners feel important and kicks the enthusiasm level up right away. Steve Ballmer got the crowd going early when he talked about how 95 percent of Microsoft's revenue comes from partners, but he couldn't find the other five percent. It's no mystery why this is such an important week for the folks in Redmond.

There were a few major themes running throughout the week, as you would expect. First, of course, was the cloud. Microsoft has said for the past few years that it was steering the company in this direction, and if this was any indication, it is there. Every session, speech and meeting had the theme of the cloud running through it. This event came on the heels of the Office 365 launch and Microsoft took every opportunity to get partners excited about it and to overcome any fears or trepidations. This is exactly what I expected.

But the other theme running through the week came as a bit of a surprise to me. I've been to this event for the past seven years, and I've never seen such a strong focus on competition in all that time. Sure, Microsoft will always mention some other vendors it runs across, but this year more than ever it really tried to focus on what makes Microsoft different (it would say "better"), and what it is doing to address the competitive landscape.

The competition focused on a few main areas. Of course, the online/search/cloud space was dominant. In some ways though, it's kind of funny. Microsoft practically dismissed Google Apps now that Office 365 is live.  At one point, Turner pointed to an industry review that compared Office 365 to an Xbox, to Google App's Pong. Of course, that brought a chuckle from the tech-centric crowd. More time was spent in the online search space, where Bing has started to make inroads. According to Ballmer, Bing served 31 percent of all online searches last quarter, when you count the traffic it provides as part of the Yahoo deal. When you consider it was at zero a couple of years ago, with Google dominant in the space, that's a pretty impressive feat.

The cloud isn't the only front Microsoft is competing on these days. The typical dismissive comments were made about everyone from Siebel (Turner challenged the crowd to find one happy Siebel customer), to IBM (Microsoft's goal is to 'exchange' five million Notes seats this year), to Oracle (there is apparently no lack of dislike towards Larry Ellison). Those are the competitors we're use to Microsoft talking about. Though, like I said, it focused more than usual. The bulk of the competitive talk was reserved for the new competition, the ones it would seem Microsoft sees as the real competition. The ones Microsoft is actually losing to right now - namely, Cisco and Apple.

It's no surprise Microsoft is trailing Cisco in the unified communications space. Microsoft is the upstart in that space, the new kid on the block, trying to knock off the leader in Cisco. Microsoft Lync (its recently renamed UC platform) was featured prominently in everything from keynotes to breakout sessions to the expo hall.  Turner called it 'eye-candy for the enterprise,' and predicted unified communications will be Microsoft's next $1 billion business. They even went on to talk a little about the Skype acquisition (as much as they could pending regulatory approval), and did a live demo using an Xbox Kinnect controller as a webcam for a Lync client. The crowd was extremely enthusiastic about the capabilities. Long gone are the days of Ballmer talking about friendly 'co-opetition' with the likes of Cisco. It is clearly in Microsoft's crosshairs.

Also in Microsoft's crosshairs is Apple. On every front, from the operating system to the mobile device platform, Microsoft is in attack mode. Demos of Windows 8 (the next version of the desktop operating system) and Windows Phone 7.5 (codenamed "Mango" - because they think mangos are a better fruit than apples) had the crowd buzzing the entire week. The next version of Windows is being built from the ground up to work seamlessly across all form factors - smartphone to tablet to PC. This strategy allows developers to build one version of an application that can work on any platform. This is something currently not possible in the Apple universe, which still revolves around three distinct platforms. This strategy should entice developers to focus on Microsoft and build up its currently lacking Windows Marketplace. Microsoft acknowledges it is still well behind in the mobile space, and doesn't expect to be number one anytime soon. I think it is currently focused on trying to become a solid number two, and then taking aim at the top. The demos of Mango were also extremely impressive, and even though it is a Microsoft event, the number of Windows Phones in use among all the attendees was still pretty impressive. I'd say it was about 3-1 over the iPhone with nary a Droid in sight. You have to start somewhere, and getting the IT folks on your side is as good a place as any.

This was definitely a new Microsoft I saw on display. It was aggressive and it pulled no punches in coming after the competition. I thought it was refreshing. Microsoft had definitely started to become a little complacent, and I think the stagnation caused it to slip in a few areas. It can't win a market space right now just because it is Microsoft, and it can't just give away products to get people to move like it has in the past. It needs to compete and win on merit. I think we will all be better for it.

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