Redmond, 'Start-up' Your Engines
Last month, I wrote about the community of Microsoft MVPs and Redmond's coming of age. I also discussed the strength Microsoft derives from this maturity. This month I want to talk about the flip side: Microsoft's more subdued success among Web start-up companies, and younger developers in general.
Relative to the LAMP stack, NoSQL databases and other open source technologies, Microsoft technology is sometimes viewed as stodgy, non-innovative and expensive. For some, the Microsoft .NET Framework, SQL Server, SharePoint and certainly Windows and Office are impressive and reliable, but not the things that Web breakthroughs are made of. Let's face it: Microsoft has a coolness deficit. The question is, what can it do about it?
Microsoft already has programs -- including BizSpark, WebsiteSpark and DreamSpark -- in place to enhance its market position with start-ups, independent Web developers, small Web companies and the students that aspire to work for them. These programs provide multiyear, free-of-charge access to all or part of the Microsoft stack for these constituencies and, by and large, they do a good job of eliminating cost as a competitive liability. But is that enough?
Victim of Its Own Success
Web start-ups, especially the well-funded ones, don't use open source technology simply because it's free. They use it because, to them, the free aspect of the software makes that software better. There's a certain vitality and, literally, youthfulness, to the communities around open source technologies. And Web start-up CEOs and CTOs don't see that same vitality around Microsoft technology and its community. As members of that community, we may ask ourselves, why not?
One big challenge for Microsoft is that it has such cash cows in Windows and Office that it's difficult for the market, and even for Microsoft itself, to see the company as one that proffers other products that are newer and more innovative. That's a shame, because just about everything out of the Microsoft Server and Tools Business is hugely powerful and constantly modernized, and cutting-edge features exist within the individual products. That story needs to be told. A lot.
Another well-kept secret is Microsoft's huge R&D budget and the activities of Microsoft Research, which is a powerhouse for incubating and commercializing a great many innovative ideas in software. Microsoft Research has an annual event called TechFest that showcases many of its projects. But that event is aimed at Microsoft employees, external influencers and select members of the press. Why isn't it bigger and more public? Wouldn't that help Microsoft's position among computer science faculty and their students, at a time when their brand loyalty is in its formative stages?
There's a business side to this, too. Start-ups want to be well-funded, well-run and poised for significant revenue as soon as possible. A company of Microsoft's size and stature can help: By working with start-ups that use the Microsoft stack, Redmond can provide them real exposure to the press and their markets, match them with CTOs who know the Microsoft stack really well, and put them in touch with venture capitalists. Through the "BizSpark One" program, Microsoft already does some of this. I'd argue it needs to do a lot more.
From Sparks to Fire
Microsoft needs to multitask. Pursuing high-innovation technologies and companies need not run counter to pursuing cash-cow businesses and the enterprise. Microsoft must do both.
Microsoft Research should be more prominent and more transparent, to shed light on an important part of the Microsoft story. Redmond should give start-ups more support and exposure; that's at least as valuable, to both parties, as producing case studies on the enterprise side. Microsoft should also engage more with academia, both evangelistically and in platform-neutral research projects of significant relevance to computer science and to industry.
Finally, getting the word out is important. Microsoft needs effective marketing and PR that tells its cutting-edge R&D story and proudly melds it with its enterprise story. The two strengthen each other, especially because Microsoft is formidable in both.
Microsoft needs to change and tell people it's changing. At the same time, it needs to be genuine and take pride in its legacy, rather than running away from it. In numerous columns we've cited various ways Redmond has begun to do this. Top-priority engagement with start-ups, Web companies and academia is one more.
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!