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 Founder and CEO of Blue Badge Insights, an analysis, strategy and advisory firm serving Microsoft customers and partners. Brust is also a Microsoft Regional Director and MVP; an advisor to the New York Technology Council; and co-author of "Programming Microsoft SQL Server 2012" (Microsoft Press, 2012). A frequent speaker at industry events, Brust is co-chair of the Visual Studio Live! family of conferences and a contributing editor to Visual Studio Magazine. Brust has been a participant in the Microsoft ecosystem for over 20 years, and has worked closely with both Microsoft's Redmond-based corporate team and its field organization for much of the last 15. He is a member of several "insiders" groups that supply him with insight around important technologies out of Redmond. Follow Brust on Twitter @andrewbrust.

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Reader Comments:

Sat, Jan 7, 2012

Apple does what it does fairly well, and that is design great devices and ecosystems which appeal to the general population. However what Apple doesn't have is enterprise support or a platfrom agnostic platform. Apple develops and restricts sw to its own hw, whereas Microsoft designs sw which can run on just about anything - so different approaches. By restricting the hw Apple can focus (and spend all its energy) on top notch consumer devices. By allowing anyone to play in the hw realm, Microsoft enables people to develop the way they way and on the hw of their choice. However this also means that Microsoft spends vast amounts of time in interoperability issues. It comes down to choice though. For me I like both, develop on both and use both. I wonder what Apple and Microsoft could do if they ever teamed up.?..

Fri, Jan 6, 2012 Marc

Is having support for native development with two markup languages, three runtimes and four languages an advantage? How can Apple be so successful with just one of each? Could it be that Apple is more focused on what's really needed?

Tue, Jan 3, 2012

Microsoft is a sw company and I think it's best for it to embrace various tech where there is both a market and technical advantage. For example writing iPhone/Android apps, writing software plug-ins for competitor products and so on. I firmly believe MSFT has the very best all around technology stack. That's not to say that others are bad or inferior, but when it comes to devt tools, integration, documentation and support, MSFT is probably unmatched. I say this with a 30 year perspective in the industry. Do I like MSFT? Yes. Have I always? Certainly not. But over the years I have learned that many (definitely not all) of my issues with them were due to a lack of knowledge and understanding about how things really worked. In any event unless there's a good reason not to go with MSFT, or unless there is a clear advantage in a competitor's solution, I generally advocate MSFT. So far I have found very few instances where MSFT was clearly the wrong fit (though maybe not the best technical fit). Often times I find that there are features of something that a company wants which MSFT doesn't offer, but which I can complement with a little ingenuity and programming. That being said I do believe the industry is at a crossroads and that Microsoft has a unique opportunity (and is uniquely situated) to take the lead, however it will take unwavering committment to, and continued support of, technologies already heavily invested in by developers and companies such as .Net and Silverlight. Whether you like these two or not, it took a lot of effort on the part of people like Scott G to foster good will in the dev community, and so if these tech are set aside then it will give a clear path for competitors to gain a solid foothold. But as mentioned they should continue to adopt/innovate in new tech such as for example giving devs the OPTION of developing Win8 MetroUI apps in HTML5/JS (though I'd choose XAML), but also continue to support existing technology (and don't label it 'legacy' as this has a somewhat negative tone to it).

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