A lot has already been written about the coming retirement of Steve Ballmer as CEO of Microsoft. The reporting has mostly attributed the decline of Microsoft to be all Ballmer’s fault, except when it’s everyone’s fault, and how far Microsoft has to go to catch up. Slate goes as far to argue that Ballmer’s Microsoft saved us from the rise of another evil empire. Certainly Ballmer has presided over some uncontestable successes and spectacular failures during his tenure at the helm. The X-Box and Zune are mentioned in almost every article I read. But what I’m not seeing a lot of commentary on is the fact that individual technologies do not exist in a vacuum but rather within a much larger architectural ecosystem. Microsoft is a major player in the enterprise sector, their biggest success story of the past twenty years, and that gives them a significant platform advantage to leverage.
The legion of Microsoft corporate platform technologists have largely been relegated to the sidelines during the shift from desktop PCs to mobile devices. The Surface tablet and new Windows mobile OS that is still relatively recent to the mobile market is finally providing a foundation for coders to create mobile interfaces for their enterprise applications. And lot of corporate IT hardware purchasers will be looking at alternatives to those iPad’s they were forced to buy and learn to support because they were the only tablets on the market. They’ll both have an easier time selling the Microsoft based alternatives to their CEO’s once they demonstrate it simply works better and more completely with the Microsoft based corporate infrastructure and applications they already have so much invested in. Even if PCs are phased out in the enterprise environment doing a platform conversion of all the enterprise applications that corporations use from Microsoft technologies to a different platform will be far more costly than replacing the desktop PCs in every cubicle with an x86 based docked tablet that can already run Microsoft based applications.
And don’t forget that the underwhelming sales numbers for the Surface tablet, while certainly discouraging for Microsoft, are also discouraging for Intel. The Surface Pro was the only major tablet packaged with Intel’s x86 answer to the ARM based architecture that powers most of our phones and tablets so they also have a vested interest in the success of Microsoft’s efforts into mobile computing. The Microsoft/Intel relationship should not be written off so easily. Microsoft is the dominant platform for x86 architecture, Intel knows that, and no one is seriously suggesting that will be changing anytime soon.
It has always been said that Microsoft is better at co-opting and improving upon the innovation of others than creating it from scratch. But establishing a profitable ecosystem that can be leveraged into other markets seems to be Microsoft’s best skill. Their presence in the enterprise space is a solid technology and financial platform to launch any number of failures from until they get it right.