Redmond Review

The Survival of Microsoft's Fittest

Microsoft has been facing heavy competition for most of the last two years. In response, it's changing -- not incrementally, but fundamentally. Windows 8 is a big departure from previous versions. Metro is everywhere, and it certainly seems like all the devices using it (PC, phone and Xbox) are converging, architecturally and organizationally. But this goes beyond technology. Microsoft is reorganizing and reprioritizing, and various teams' fortunes are rising and falling. As such, some people are changing jobs within Microsoft and a large number of people have left the company. This will probably continue for a while.

All of this change creates flux, and not just for people who work in Redmond. The change creates flux in the development platform, and thus it impacts you. The apparent de-emphasis of Silverlight is but one example of such impact. The prominence of HTML5 and JavaScript and of the app store economic model for developers provides you with more. Put these and other changes together and you'll realize that it's not just your imagination: The ground really is shifting underneath your feet.

The Horses Are on the Track
So what can you do? You might be tempted to ignore all this, but that could lead to bad investments of your time, or your company's money. You could sit there paralyzed and not start any new projects, but eventually you'll get tired of treading water. You could jump ship to another platform, but do you really want to do that just as Microsoft seems ready to give you a unified development platform for PC, tablet, phone and maybe even entertainment? The better approach to Redmond's realignment is to be analytical about what makes the company tick, then base your investments on where it wants to go. In other words, align your skill investments with Microsoft's priorities.

What are those priorities? First and foremost, revenue is king. The products, and product groups, bringing in the most money have the most power and influence as Microsoft remakes itself. Products and activities that don't make a lot of money could find themselves in danger, and might maneuver to facilitate the rainmaker products.

The biggest moneymakers at Microsoft, of course, are Windows client and Office. But there are important revenue winners beyond the two perennial cash cows. Windows Sever does great and so does SQL Server. SharePoint is huge, Exchange is king and Lync is a rising star. Dynamics CRM and ERP are growing, and Xbox is finally making some real money. And even if it seems irrelevant to you as a developer, the upward trajectory of System Center is something you should consider.

There are underperformers, too. BizTalk doesn't make much. Neither does Windows Phone. Visual Studio does well, but the Microsoft .NET Framework itself is free. And although there's been a ton of investment in Windows Azure, it apparently hasn't made big numbers yet. If you consider all this, digest it and internalize it, you'll be in a much better position in deciding what to learn, where to specialize and what changes to expect.

Win, Place and Show
For now, focusing on the HTML5/JavaScript model for Windows Runtime (WinRT)/Metro-style applications seems prudent, and that's clearly why Visual Studio has pivoted to support that model in its next release. If Windows Phone and/or Xbox adopts this model, you'll have great entrée into developing for devices and the "10 foot" TV environment. Work with SQL Server and SharePoint, or the business intelligence intersection between the two, and you'll be in high demand, specializing in technologies that are continually invested in by Microsoft.

If you prefer to stick with straight application development, ASP.NET seems the best place to be: SharePoint is built atop it, Dynamics products use it and Windows Azure has a deep reliance on it as well. And speaking of Windows Azure, keep your eye out for new Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) options that it might offer. Platform as a Service (PaaS) has the highest value, but IaaS is where Amazon, the current cloud market leader, makes its money, and where the Hyper-V/System Center private cloud combination has gained traction.

A certain Darwinian evolution is taking place at Microsoft. Some product species are more fit, with better chances for survival. You can understand and work with Microsoft's changes, rather than being passively impacted by them. You have power -- more than you might realize -- in interpreting these changes and using them to your advantage. That's control you need, for yourself and your career. Assert it, use it, and you may well come out ahead.

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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