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Microsoft's Been Swift-Boated. Now What?

This commentary originally appeared in the June 24, 2008 issue of Windows IT Pro UPDATE, an email newsletter aimed at IT professionals. --Paul

You've no doubt seen Apple's infamous Switcher ads. Who hasn't? In ad after ad, a Windows PC--played to humorous effect by affable comedian and "The Daily Show" contributor John Hodgman--is played the fool by Mac, a barely tolerable student slacker played by Justin Long (who I'm sure is a fine guy in real life). The Switcher ads are painfully effective, though anyone with even a modest understanding of what's really going on today in the PC marketplace will tell you that Apple's claims often stretch the bounds of credibility.

So why do I mention this here? After all, as a Windows IT Pro UPDATE reader, you're ostensibly an IT pro of some kind. What could these consumer-oriented bits of fluff possibly have to do with work?

Why just about everything, actually. In fact, in case you missed this year's Microsoft marketing message, a prime component of the software giant's business-oriented push this year with products such as Windows Small Business Server 2008 and Essential Business Server 2008 is the "consumerization of IT." The idea is that with consumers have ever-expanding access to mobile and entertainment technologies, they're more apt to expect to use those products at work.

We can debate the chicken and the egg aspect of this equation, but my feeling is that consumer- and business-oriented technologies have been cross-pollinating since the dawn of the PC era. I recall people bringing Apple II's into workplaces in the early 1980s so they could crunch numbers with VisiCalc, for example. And on the flipside, people have been buying IBM-compatible PCs for personal use for years, specifically so they can run work applications at home. So it's not a new trend, per se. It's just that the technologies have gotten so much better over the past 30 years. This creates new opportunities for individuals, good and bad. And it can be a headache for any IT admin who's keen to keep his employer's data from walking out the door on someone's iPod.

But back to the Switcher ads, which are, in my mind, to computing what the "swift boat" ads were to the 2004 US presidential election. To date, Microsoft has had an unspoken rule about its competition in the consumer OS space: It pretends there isn't any. But with Apple making steady ground in OS market share since Steve Jobs returned to the company, especially in key markets like the US, consumer sales, and, most especially, the mobility market, it's time for Microsoft to respond. My hope is that the company can make a more effective and more aggressive response than the one that sunk John Kerry's presidential aspirations four years ago. (I'm not debating politics here. But let's face it: The guy came up on the losing end of that debate, despite the merits of his argument.)

The reason this is important to IT pros is that the cross-pollination I spoke of earlier is in danger of reaching a tipping point. Previously, if you were a Windows guy, it made sense that you'd want to run Windows at home, since that's where the apps were. And when it came time to rollout a mobile phone solution at work, Windows Mobile--or at least an Exchange-compatible solution like RIM's Blackberry--would make the short list because of the familiarity and proven history of those platforms. At home, you might consider an Xbox 360 because of the Microsoft and PC connections, and if you were hunting for a portable media player, a PlaysForSure solution offered the best compatibility.

Apple, Google, and a combination of outside factors--including a now steady march towards cloud computing--have effectively destroyed Microsoft's biggest advantages. Now, in increasing numbers, people are turning to Macs--especially mobile Macs--at home, and especially so in the US, and especially in higher education. The iPhone is the hottest smart phone of the past 12 months, and the new iPhone 3G should make even more of an impact. Nintendo has stolen the video game market from Microsoft, and even Sony looks to be making a comeback there. And digital media? Forget about it: It's all about Apple's iPod and iTunes. Nothing else comes close.

OK, what about the business space? I feel that Microsoft's business-oriented solutions are superior, and perhaps they will continue to be so for years to come. But a growing population of the computer-using public is using Macs and not PCs, iPods and not Windows Media devices, iPhones and not Windows Mobile devices. They're using cloud-based email and personal information management services, not complex internally-managed systems like Exchange. And when they get into the workplace, they're going to expect access to the same trusted and beloved technologies, just as people have always done. Small businesses? Why would they set up a complex local server that requires constant attention and management when they can get Google Apps for free or next to nothing? The world is moving on.

The problem with this unfolding future is that Microsoft isn't rising to the challenge. We're seeing half-hearted efforts like hosted Exchange, but let's turn that one on its head. If Exchange is so great, why isn't Hotmail/Windows Live running on Exchange? Why isn't SBS available as a hosted service? It goes on and on.

As for the Switcher ads, Microsoft has been notably silent, allowing Apple to control the discussion and let perception become reality. And honestly, why would Microsoft even license Exchange to Apple? Are they crazy? Between this and all the other ActiveSync licensing, they've effectively ceded the smart phone market to their competitors. What's next? A license to run Windows applications on the Mac?

It's time for Microsoft to respond to the challenges it faces with leadership and authority. And if you care about the systems you support now, your jobs, and your very livelihood, you might do demand the same from the company. All of us have backed the same horse. And from what I can tell, that horse looks like it's' ready for the proverbial pasture.

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