Microsoft Worldwide Partner Conference 2011 – Clouds Are on the Horizon

The notion of running everything in the cloud was first pushed by Microsoft at the 2009 Worldwide Partner Conference when CEO Steve Ballmer introduced the enterprise level cloud computing platform Windows Azure. While Azure was more of a “supercomputer in the sky” for shared computational power, it’s not something the average SMB would likely use. However, during that same week Microsoft presented BPOS (Business Productivity Online Suite) to address the needs of the SMB market.
BPOS delivered Exchange, SharePoint, Office Communicator, and LiveMeeting through the cloud and was designed to give SMBs a way to move from traditional licensing models and expensive hardware requirements to a pay-as-you-go service plan. However, the number of SMB customers that could take advantage of BPOS was limited because something was lacking; a better Outlook client to handle the mail. Add to that the number of organizations using older versions of Office which were incompatible with BPOS and the SMB adoption rate was paltry.
Enter Office 365. The upgrade from BPOS to Office 365 was first announced in early 2011 and was officially available in late June of 2011. Office 365 took the BPOS solution further by adding Office 2010 Professional Plus and Lync Online, the combined platforms of LiveMeeting and Office Communications Server, to the fold. Seen by outsiders as a direct shot at Google, the sessions at this year’s WPC avoided that comparison. Well, not all of them but most of them. Speaker after speaker touted the business benefits of Office 365 without having to maintain or deploy the applications.
For a small or midsized business with little or no IT staff, Office 365 makes a great deal of sense from an economic and technology standpoint. With a varied range of options, it can be customized to fit every scenario, and the added benefits enhance mobility, flexibility and productivity!
But why not Google? Some would point to the recent, well-publicized failures within the Google platform. Others identify issues with document fidelity when going from one application to another. While the Google mantra continues to be “it’s free,” the old adage my father drilled into my head keeps popping up. “You get what you pay for.” Not to mention that there are add-ons that are “recommended” for businesses to get the most out of the platform, and those added items come with a price tag. So to truly compare apples to apples you have to fold those issues into the mix.
So while the Google vs. Office 365 debate rages on, other topics generated a lot of buzz as well. Microsoft really sounded the bell that they were serious about being a player in the mobile phone market at last year’s conference in Washington, DC by rolling out Windows Phone 7. While very pretty, it hasn’t made a huge dent in the marketplace to this point. However, when the next generation of Windows Phone dubbed “Mango” was introduced and demonstrated, there were more than a few who were impressed at the interface. With the huge push this year on signing up phone makers, Microsoft has found new partners willing to bet on the Windows Phone OS like European giant Nokia. With the new OS, it will be interesting to see what impact Windows Phone will have on the market leading iPhones, BlackBerrys and Android devices.
The word “devices” has taken on new meaning this year. 2011 may well be remembered as the “year of the tablet.” It’s hard to go anywhere and not hear or see an iPad being used by businesses and consumers alike, but there is starting to be competition for Apple’s huge market lead. Makers of the Android OS have built more than a few tablets, and recently Research in Motion (RIM) introduced their Playbook tablet. You can bet your bottom dollar that there will be more discussion about the Microsoft tablet OS next year at WPC in Canada.
Partner Channel leader Jon Roskill made a point to push the message about Microsoft CRM and ERP. Long thought to be more of an enterprise play, Office 365 now offers CRM online to the SMB community. For years, small and midsized businesses relied on contact management suites like ACT! and Goldmine to manage sales prospects and customers. Historically, dominated the space through a customizable application that didn’t require PC installation or network management and was accessible from “the cloud.”
The addition of CRM Online to the Microsoft cloud portfolio offers a pay-as-you-go option for businesses that balked at the high cost of . Not to mention the tight integration with everyday tools like Outlook and Office. This gives the small and midsized organization the tools they need to really manage their contacts and differentiate themselves from their competition.
One message that was echoed loud and clear which may not be something the SMB community wants to hear is the imminent end for Windows XP. While it’s not immediately on life support with an end date of 2014, enhancements to the client OS have not been made in a while, it’s long past end of sale, and the previous ability for resellers to sell PC’s with Windows 7 downgrade licenses is all but over. What does this mean? Well, it will surely help sales of Windows 7 though the benefits of doing so far outweigh the trepidation of those holding on like fingernails on a climbing wall to their dear XP. With Windows 8 around the corner and additional enhancements to the interface, which were previewed at WPC, it’s almost silly to keep it going.
Lastly, the strong messaging from WPC was that Microsoft’s “all in” with the cloud (if I had a dime for every time I heard that during the week I’d be heading to Hollywood to finance Chuck Norris’ comeback!). The executives from Redmond and from the regions emphasized that the SMB community is key to their growth and strategy, and by bringing the enterprise applications to small and midsized businesses will only deepen the brand.