Small Business in the 21st Century

Small Business in the 21st Century

Microsoft is losing its grip on an important market

Microsoft used to have a firm grip on small businesses, which the software company could nurture into bigger business customers of the future. But this June's Apple WWDC and Google I/O conferences cemented a problem I see getting only worse for the software giant: For a growing generation of new technology users, Microsoft and its productivity solutions simply aren't part of the discussion. And this isn't just bad news for Microsoft, its bad news for IT.

Looking back on its very central role during the PC revolution, Microsoft's biggest strength was its ability to democratize technology by taking it out of the hands of the (figuratively) white-lab-coated high priests of the minicomputer world and giving that technology to end users more simply and less expensively. There are hundreds of examples of this, from Windows NT, to SQL Server and its Terra Server, to more recent efforts in business intelligence and machine learning.

Of course, as Microsoft became dominant in PC computing, it established its own platforms as the new tech deities, and IT—the new high priests—were basically serving in the same largely antagonistic role as their predecessors. But now, the latest revolution—mobile devices and cloud computing—is sweeping through like a tsunami and has started chipping away at the status quo, just as Microsoft and the PC industry had 30 years ago.

The problem? Microsoft became the status quo. By solving so many problems over the years, the firm is now paradoxically considered old fashioned in the way it operates.

But give Microsoft some credit. No, they weren't first, and, no, they didn't adapt to these changes as quickly as they probably could have. But the software giant isn't going down without a fight, and it has done a credible—no, an amazing—job of adapting its traditional, on-premises products and services to what it calls the "mobile first, cloud first" world. (This week—Microsoft's taglines seem to change rapidly these days.)

It's not all blue sky ahead, of course. In three of the most important future markets—consumers, education, and small business—few seem to care about Microsoft anymore. They're too busy buying Apple and Android devices while using Google and a plethora of other online services.

As with the PC revolution before, these users expect to use the technology they know and love at work as well as at home. As with the PC revolution before, this technology is increasingly accommodating that usage with better security, business-focused functionality and even interoperability, in this case with important Microsoft standards like Office documents and Exchange ActiveSync (EAS).

Indeed, at their respective developer-oriented (read: platform-oriented) conferences over the past month—WWDC for Apple and Google I/O for Google—the new darlings of personal computing were pushing messages that were, for them, a bit unusual: Better security and business deployment technologies. And there's Microsoft over in the corner, supporting these companies' platforms with new mobile apps, especially Microsoft Office for iPad. (Coming soon to Android tablets!)

You can read about the respective developments in Apple Highlights iOS 8 Enterprise Features and Google I/O 2014: Android Takes the L. What I'm wondering about now is what the future looks like when non-Microsoft devices and non-Microsoft services are the standard.

For those in IT, Microsoft's push to devices and cloud services is seen mostly as a mixed bag and many are particularly negative about the firm's cloud services efforts. I hope you now understand why this negative view is misguided. Microsoft saw where the industry was going and adapted, not only for its own corporate well-being, but also so that its core business customers could make the change as well. In doing so, it created tools, products and other solutions that take your existing skills, data and security protections and move them forward. Google and Apple do not offer such opportunities. In fact, to these companies, you and your infrastructure are a problem to be dealt with, not resources to foster and expand.

Many will argue for years to come that putting important data in the cloud is dangerous, as is allowing employees to carry around tiny devices that are easy to lose or steal. These complaints will seem increasingly shrill and out of touch as time goes on, just as the cries for a return to Big Iron did 25 years ago.

We—and here I mean "we" collectively—should support Microsoft's vision for the future specifically because it does not throw out the past to embrace the future. Instead, it takes the best of the past (like granular, policy-based controls in solutions like Active Directory) and brings them forward in ways that are both familiar and make sense in this new world (simpler, policy-based controls in Mobile Device Management solutions).

That's good for established businesses. But the worry, again, is about those emerging businesses and the personal computing expectations they will have in near future. The families with kids in school. Higher education. Start-ups and very small businesses. The trick is getting these people and entities to embrace Microsoft's vision for the future. Not so that Microsoft will be successful, per se. But so that a generation of learning and evolution won't disappear overnight. So that the good won't be swept away with the bad. So that "good enough" doesn't beat "best in breed."

So how does Microsoft—how do we­—attract the next generation of small business users?

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