Microsoft's Summer of Love

Does the unprecedented number of major product releases in 2012 represent a total renaissance or last hurrah?

We don't often look to Microsoft to make a lot of news during the long, hot summer months. However, the summer of 2012 has seen Microsoft making announcements and releasing products with Olympic swiftness. But this is no game for the company. The stakes are high, and the company's sights are perhaps even higher.

It's not just the timing of these releases. We've also never seen a wave of so many Microsoft product and service releases in so short a time span. Essentially, the company has released new versions—either shipping or in beta (or "Preview")—of every one of its major product lines over the course of about two months. Windows 8 and the Office 2013 suite have gotten the Microsoft love in terms of flashy launch events, while the server products of greatest interest to IT pros, such as Windows Server 2012, SharePoint 2013 Preview, and Exchange Server 2013 Preview, have been revealed lying on the beach only after the waters recede.

The consumer focus isn't just about launch events, either; it's ingrained in the product releases themselves. Much has been written about the Windows 8 Metro-style interface (which I know we're not supposed to call Metro anymore, but—tough), which is optimized for tablets and touch screens—but that means it's rather ahead of the curve for most IT shops. And to coincide with Windows 8's debut, Microsoft announced its own tablet line, the Microsoft Surface, to compete with the iPad and jumpstart the Windows 8 tablet market.

As part of the Office 2013 launch, Microsoft introduced a new subscription plan for Office 365 aimed at home users, Office 365 Home Premium. The service gives home users the full Office experience—Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook, OneNote, Publisher, Access—in a portable form, with your documents stored in SkyDrive for anywhere access. Shortly after the Office launch event, Microsoft announced a complete overhaul of Hotmail, with the rebranded free email service called The clean UI of the web service and the company's messaging around this service is clearly designed to take on major competitor Google Gmail directly.

In many ways, it seems a peculiar strategy for Microsoft to effectively ignore the business software that has been the company's lifeblood and focus instead on promoting consumer releases. By comparison, in past release cycles, the business-focused products such as Windows Server, Exchange Server, and SharePoint have warranted their own individual launch events or special promotion from Microsoft. Yet this time around, for instance, the Exchange Server 2013 Preview was available for download for a full week before the Exchange Team Blog ever made any announcement about its availability.

This shift could almost appear to be an act of desperation, a company trying to make waves in the consumer space, to be cool and sexy like certain of its competitors—even though this is a realm in which Microsoft has largely failed miserably in the recent past. An August 2012 Vanity Fair article has been getting a lot of attention for talking about "Microsoft's Lost Decade" and suggesting that the only solution for the company is to split into pieces because it's become too diverse.

So, is this consumer push just Microsoft's last hurrah, a last attempt to achieve relevance in a technology space that's increasingly being led by consumer products? Or does Microsoft's strategy signal a renewed energy and understanding of both the competition the company faces and the way consumers—and, by extension, businesses—are using technology?

We've been talking about the "consumerization of IT" and the related concept of bring your own device (BYOD) for several years now. It's certainly no surprise to IT pros, therefore, that the consumer space has been driving adoption of technology in business environments. In smartphones, we've seen BYOD work to the great benefit of Android and iPhone—and huge detriment of RIM BlackBerry. In tablets, the iPad quickly insinuated itself in the hands of employees and IT pros. Why wouldn't Microsoft want to duplicate that success with its own branded Surface tablet and Windows 8? Get consumers loving it and then asking their workplaces to purchase or support them for business use.

Office 365 seems to be another forward-looking step. For years, Microsoft has relied on product cycles for its revenue—releasing new versions of its successful product lines and convincing consumers and businesses to buy those new versions every two or three years. Moving to a services model gives the company a steady, subscription-based income. And focusing on consumers in this space helps to capture the mindshare of users even before they have to make technology choices in business. One of the stumbling blocks for cloud computing generally has been a fear of giving up control of systems and data; but if your workforce and IT pros are already familiar with using a Microsoft service in their non-work life, how much easier does that make it to choose Microsoft's service for work as well?

Microsoft has often been criticized for moving too slowly, not seeing the new directions and trends in the marketplace until after competitors have blazed a trail. Certainly you can look at areas such as smartphones and tablets and see truth in that analysis. However, it's just possible that this recent onslaught from Microsoft, this tsunami wave of releases focused on the consumer, signals a new understanding of what it takes to compete today and how to maintain relevance even in the business sphere. As the betas and Previews become shipping products and services over the coming months, we'll see if Microsoft's summer of love is a true renaissance for the company, or a washout.

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