Redmond Review

The Shifting Sands of the Microsoft Ecosystem

As the market becomes more diffuse, its practitioners and participants must cope and adapt.

Let's be honest. For more than a year now, there's been tumult in the Microsoft ecosystem and channel. Between the disruptions of the iPhone, iPad and Android, and Bob Muglia's impolitic last words ("our strategy with Silverlight has shifted"), there's been worry that Microsoft has lost its mojo, and changed developer stack courses too abruptly. Seemingly as a result, Microsoft partners have recently exhibited a subtle, incipient rebranding away from Microsoft specialization, toward more general software expertise.

For example, a major training partner's homepage once asked visitors in bold type if they were "Looking for Microsoft .NET training?" and proudly featured its Microsoft Certified Partner logo. After a Web site redesign, those brand-specific assets are now gone. Another data point: a leading component vendor's homepage proclaims its offer of "the Future of .NET Development Today," but a stand-alone site for one of its new products has a tagline that references only Web development, and indeed the product is platform-agnostic. Another case in point: one of Microsoft's important systems integrator (SI) partners once promoted its "Custom Microsoft Applications" bona fides on its own homepage, but now just touts its custom application development and testing services.

We Are All Switzerland
I started a business one year ago with the specific focus of helping Microsoft partners, and I work with a lot of them. Virtually all of them are making or pondering such changes in their market approaches. And it isn't just companies making this shift; individual developers have been giving themselves makeovers, too. One developer who commented on a recent blog post of mine explained that he's changed the title on his resume and blog from .NET Software Architect to just Software Architect.

Now let's be clear: none of these changes promotes a Microsoft competitor and none is derogatory or condescending toward Microsoft. In fact, the newer messaging isn't pro- or anti- anything, but instead is simply neutral. But .NET's coming of age, as well as that of its ecosystem partners, took place in a rather partisan fight with Java. On both sides of this pitched battle, there was dogma and there were words and actions that could be viewed as heretical. In the partner scene at that time, neutrality seemed naïve and felt downright elusive. What was demanded then was faith: faith in new products and new technologies within a platform, and faith in the wisdom of discontinuing the old ones.

If partners and developers were "religious" before, they're instead becoming quite agnostic now, both in terms of platforms and adherence to people, companies and ideas. Perhaps that's because the choices are no longer binary. With the inroads made by iOS and Android on the OS side, and by PHP, Ruby, Python, Objective C, JavaScript and others on the language side, the Windows-Linux and .NET-Java duopolies have given way to a panoply of technology options, and a growing developer culture defined by it. In this environment, platform choice is often guided by the economic opportunity predicted for an application's launch, rather than the economic- and effort-based investment made before the application's development began.

Decisions, Decisions
There is wonder in choice, and there is also sometimes stress. Both are in evidence in today's platform shifts. Developers might not be forced into huge bets on one platform or another. But the bets they do make have to be hedged, and that's a much more complex calculus. It means that developers have to learn more platforms and tools. And it means they might not know any of them as well as the platform choice they would have made in the more dichotomized environment of the last decade.

Commitment is less required, but outcomes are also less clear, and that's not easy. It's not easy for developers, nor for the partners who employ them and sell to them. Heck, it's not easy for Microsoft, either. If it were, would Windows 8 support native development with two markup languages, three runtimes and four languages? And if Microsoft is playing the field that way, can we blame its ecosystem for doing likewise?

In biology, ecosystems are defined by the organisms that live exclusively within them. That's been a pretty apt analogy for the software world. But now that's changing, and we shouldn't be surprised that partners and developers are changing accordingly. As the market becomes more diffuse, its practitioners and participants must cope and adapt. That's OK; the community will benefit from being less insular. But be warned: it may also suffer from being less cohesive.

About the Author

Andrew Brust is Research Director for Big Data and Analytics at Gigaom Research. Andrew is co-author of "Programming Microsoft SQL Server 2012" (Microsoft Press); an advisor to NYTECH, the New York Technology Council; co-moderator of Big On Data - New York's Data Intelligence Meetup; serves as Microsoft Regional Director and MVP; and is conference co-chair of Visual Studio Live!

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