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Can Microsoft Now Finish Growing Up?

With Ray Ozzie taking the software development reins and given his past experience at Lotus and IBM, I'm thinking he might be able to help Microsoft not only understand, but really embed into its cultural DNA what large customers need, want, and expect in a technology vendor.
With Bill Gates going off to do what sounds to me like the coolest job on the planet (except my own, of course), perhaps now the company can become the full enterprise partner it has long pined to be.Despite how this may appear, I'm not blaming Gates, really. He took Microsoft much farther than few people, in addition to the founders of course, envisioned some 31 years ago. Gates has already ensured his legacy in the business world, and he did that long ago. Love 'em or hate 'em, everybody has heard of Microsoft.

No, I'm talking about Microsoft's on-again, off-again attempts at becoming a computing powerhouse that helps the Fortune 500 run their businesses from the data center on down.

Sure, Microsoft has made great strides, especially with SQL Server powering some truly huge endeavors. As my colleague Charles Babcock pointed out in his blog entry about Winter Corp.'s 2005 list of top 10 databases, out of 170 entrants qualifying as managing a terabyte of data or more, 43 were SQL Server systems.

More recently, InformationWeek's Aaron Ricadela reported that a computer cluster running a new high-performance version of Windows operates at nearly double the previous Windows speed record.

As impressive as all this is, Microsoft running with the big guys has been almost despite itself. It's really just within the past five years that we've seen solid evidence of the company purposefully focusing on security, scalability, and, perhaps most importantly to large customers, playing nicely with non-Microsoft systems and vendors.

Say what you want about Gates & Co., but they're not stupid folks. They've long known what big customers say they want, but it's just been, in my opinion, difficult to change the culture of a company that's become as large as Microsoft. What used to be a bunch of nerdy guys trying to make insanely great software has turned into a place where project plans and code sign-offs and team meetings now reign. Just as at any large company, the infrastructure can sometimes get in the way.

Oh, and there's the installed base issue.

As a result, what we've been witnessing at Microsoft for the past few years is a phenomenon familiar to what most parents of girls live with at some point during the "tween" years of, say, 10 and 13. Not quite young women but not quite past being little girls, one minute the kids are spiking their hair and listening to gangsta rap and the next moment they're playing with dolls. It's a confusing time for all involved.

Similarly, Microsoft hasn't quite grown up into the Fortune 500 purveyor it's longed to become, but it's way beyond its initial geeky stage of, hey, let's make some software for folks to use on their PCs.

With Ray Ozzie taking the software development reins and given his past experience at Lotus and IBM, I'm thinking he might be able to help Microsoft not only understand, but really embed into its cultural DNA what large customers need, want, and expect in a technology vendor. Ozzie and his R&D partner at Microsoft, Craig Mundie, share some big-systems background as fellow alumni of famed, now-defunct minicomputer vendor Data General. They can put those lessons to good use at Microsoft.

Also, Ozzie hasn't had long enough to pick up too many Microsoft bad habits; he's been working for the company only since March 2005, when Microsoft acquired his Groove Networks.

Meantime, Bill Gates' legacy as a philanthropist might even outshine what he's done at Microsoft. Sure, there's the money, and billions put toward any given set of problems can make a noticeable dent if applied correctly. But it's not just about the money.

Bill's tech background might help his foundation discern new ways of attacking old problems, and his business acumen could help create repeatable processes and metrics to track the success (or failure) of any given project. He also has the pull to get different sets of stakeholders to, for instance, create less expensive and more feasible ways of cleaning up water supplies in developing countries to help improve the health of the citizens there. Gates might really shake up the business of charity.

Revenge of the geeks, indeed.

What do you think? What should Microsoft's direction be under its revamped management structure? Comment below.With Ray Ozzie taking the software development reins and given his past experience at Lotus and IBM, I'm thinking he might be able to help Microsoft not only understand, but really embed into its cultural DNA what large customers need, want, and expect in a technology vendor.