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Microsoft Goes Back To The Future As Web 2.0 Looms

At Tech Ed, the company invoked an iconic 80s movie to help show that the software maker needs to focus on building good products instead of vaguely defined "visions."

Paul McDougall

June 4, 2007

3 Min Read

With computing moving to the Web and new competitors emerging, desktop stalwart Microsoft has gone Back To The Future -- to steal a page from IBM.

Accompanied on stage by actor Christopher Lloyd and a gull-winged DeLorean, Microsoft senior vice president Bob Muglia on Monday invoked an iconic 80s movie to help show that the software maker needs to focus on building good products instead of vaguely defined "visions" to successfully navigate the changes sweeping the software industry.

In a keynote at Microsoft's Tech Ed conference in Orlando, Muglia promised the audience that, "I'm going to talk about real world stuff."

Muglia spoke following a brief video in which he asks Lloyd, in character as the frenetic Dr. Emmett Brown, to take him "back to the future" so he can redo a keynote that ended with a tomato pelting from an audience that "has heard visions up the wazoo."

The video poked fun at past grand efforts from Microsoft that ultimately fizzled.

Among them: Hailstorm -- a 2001 plan for a series of Web services designed to let users control their personal information on the Web. In the video, Muglia admits that Hailstorm was "completely overarching and unworkable."

Also pilloried was the Object File System (OSF), an early 90s initiative to redefine the way computers locate information internally.

On stage, Muglia said Microsoft needs to dispense with such broad strategies if it's to increase its relevance in the enterprise software market at a time when IT departments are themselves wondering what to make of Web services, service oriented architectures, software as a service, outsourcing and a host of other, emergent technologies and business models.

Microsoft's mission in such a milieu, Muglia said, should be to help businesses find practical ways to transform their IT departments from cost centers to sources of competitive advantage, regardless of the technologies employed. "It's a journey toward the dynamic" said Muglia.

His comments come at a time when Microsoft is struggling with its identity as it faces fierce competition from Web powerhouses like Google and upstarts that promote Linux as an alternate to Windows on desktops and servers.

Microsoft has been somewhat schizophrenic in dealing with the threats. It has alternately played up its Web offerings with the launch of online services like Windows Live, while at the same time casting itself as a champion of the rich-client with the debut of Windows Vista -- Microsoft's fattest operating system to date.

Muglia's pledge not to unveil another grand vision (Lloyd, as Dr. Brown, threatened to interrupt the keynote with a bicycle horn if the v-word was used) suggests that the company, going forward, will worry less about how its offerings fit into larger strategies and more about whether they work as promised and interoperate with other products.

Muglia's promise recalls a time when rival IBM was wrestling with the transition from mainframe computing to client/server architectures. "The last thing IBM needs right now is a vision," said Lou Gerstner, immediately after he joined the computer maker as CEO in 1993.

Gerstner's initial focus on tactics over strategy helped IBM survive a profound industry shift. 14 years later, Muglia and Microsoft appear ready to take a similar approach to navigate equally momentous change.

But in the real world, a magical DeLorean won't be on hand to whisk them Back To The Future should things go awry.

About the Author(s)

Paul McDougall

Editor At Large, InformationWeek

Paul McDougall is a former editor for InformationWeek.

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