Microsoft’s Cloud Service Hints at Future for Enterprise “Desktop”

Originally posted at : Internet Evolution – Sean Gallagher – Cloud Service Is a Portent for Enterprise Desktops.

Microsoft's offices in downtown DC

Microsoft’s K Street office entrance

A day before the 30th anniversary of the unveiling of the personal computer, I was at a Microsoft media event in Washington. Called “The Future of Federal Work,” the event was intended to show off Microsoft’s Office 365 cloud-based collaboration and productivity platform in the context of how federal agencies will use it. But the event also offered a look at how Microsoft envisions the future of business computing in general, and what place the PC holds in that future.

With the rise of the Web and cloud computing, IBM’s Mark Dean has said that we’ve entered the “post-PC” era. Microsoft vice president of communications Frank Shaw says he prefers to call it the “PC-plus” era, since the PC is becoming just one of many devices people use to access and work with data.

The PC isn’t dead — it’s just becoming harder and harder to define what a PC is. And based on what we’ve seen of Microsoft’s plans for the Windows operating system, the divisions between cloud, desktop, and mobile device applications are going to get even more blurry.

Office 365 itself is evolutionary rather than revolutionary. The biggest change may be in the business model for delivery. This platform gets customers out of the business of maintaining software infrastructure and the servers that run it, providing these elements through the cloud. And in the case of the government, that cloud is a private one.

Chris Niehaus

Chris Niehaus

Chris Neihaus, director of innovation for Microsoft’s US public sector business, said at last week’s event that Microsoft “used to be like Blockbuster, and now we’re evolving our productivity business to be more like Netflix.” As with Netflix, you can still get software delivered on disks, or you can download it on demand from the network on whatever device you have handy.

The demo of Office 365 was conducted on a set of giant touch-screens in Microsoft’s new Innovation and Policy Center in Washington. It was intended to show that the service bridges from thick-client desktop to browser to mobile device app with the same user interface, and it largely delivers the same user experience.

“The features and capability might not be at parity” across all devices, Microsoft public sector CTO Susie Adams said. “But the user experience is the same from a productivity experience.”

For many large enterprises, including government agencies, that commonality of experience, plus a previously installed base of Microsoft’s productivity tools, make Office 365 awfully attractive. This also means that previous investments in leveraging Windows management tools to enforce user authentication and security policies are largely preserved. And enterprises don’t have to invest in additional user and IT professional training to support this deployment.

A number of federal agencies are already using the service. Those that bought the predecessor Business Productivity Online Services-Federal (BPOS-F), including the Department of Agriculture, are being converted to Office 365 as the new service is being certified for compliance with federal information security management standards.

One part of Microsoft’s vision for the “future of work” was only hinted at during the demos. That part is Windows 8, the next release of Microsoft’s operating system, which will prominently feature applications based on HTML5 and JavaScript — already the standards for cross-platform mobile application development. By leveraging touch, clouds, and Web services, the next generation of Windows will further blur the line between what happens locally on a device and what happens in the cloud.

That approach isn’t unique. In fact, some may see Microsoft’s direction as a concession to victories by Apple and Google in the mobile realm, as well as by the Web over Windows as a development platform. But if people end up running Windows apps on their iPads and Androids, I hardly think Microsoft will consider that surrender.

— Sean Gallagher is an award-winning IT journalist and the former head of InformationWeekLabs. Gallagher is now an independent journalist and technology consultant based in Baltimore. He can be reached at: gallagher.sean.m@gmail.com.