This "fifth version" of the software giant reflects the first major moves post Bill Gates and the impact from the influx of large numbers of Open Source advocates into the company.
Im writing this from the Microsoft Management and Integrated Virtualization Analyst Summit. In many ways this event reflects what I think of as Microsoft 4.0. It is the culmination of .NET, and it showcases their massive focus on large-scale systems management, vertical integration between Microsoft products, and their strength in the back office.
However this event also looks ahead to Microsofts fifth revision, one that puts them into the cloud and positions them for the next decade. You are likely to hear more of this on the consumer side in their Live products at the moment, largely because both IT and the organizations that serve them tend to move at a much more measured pace (the word slow comes to mind).
Some of the most dramatic efforts involve Microsoft embracing alternative products like Linux and UNIX with their management tools. The most interesting thing to watch at Microsoft and any company are conflicts between the old and the new. On the desktop the new is Live Mesh and the old is their largely Vista- and XP-focused Optimized Desktop platform. Live Mesh isnt done, while Optimized Desktop is, but blending these two concepts will be interesting to watch. Both likely will reduce dramatically the costs of managing your PCs and risks surrounding the desktop platform.
The 5th Rebirth of Microsoft
We are entering what I think is the 5th rebirth of Microsoft. Microsoft started as a tools company. Their first major revision was when they picked up DOS and built Windows to be a platform vendor; their third revision was when they brought out Windows 95 and discovered both the Web and servers; their fourth was .NET and making the back-end the integrated power it is; and their fifth revision is discovering Open Source, Cloud Computing. We are just at the beginning of that revision.
What makes this fifth revision interesting is seeing the first major moves post Bill Gates and the impact from the influx of large numbers of Open Source advocates into the company. In this case this revision may have as much to do with the internal conflicts in Microsoft between the old guard who came up with one approach to building and controlling software (closed and proprietary) and the new guard who believe the companys survival depends on being much more transparent and open with their partners and customers.
Given that people joining the company are largely in the latter camp, it is doubtful this trend toward open will be reversed. But until something is done anything is possible and the transition is going to be painful for the firm yet, if done correctly, should position it well for the next 5 to 10 years.
Something else I think is interesting is that the first 3 transitions were largely driven off the desktop, the 4th was balanced with most of the advancement in the back office, and the 5th is heavily back-office oriented. Strangely enough it is on the desktop where I see the most contrast between Microsoft 4.0 and Microsoft 5.0. The Optimized Desktop represents 4.0 thinking and Live Mesh (even down to the name) represents 5.0.
This is actually an umbrella term for a number of solutions targeting the desktop from Microsoft. This has also been a long-term project that focused on solving a number of deployment problems with desktop computing. One of the biggest was the time it takes to set up and provision a PC.
Basically this separates the files and settings from the PC and places them up on a Microsoft Server. These settings can then be applied to systems, both real and remotely virtualized, which will clone the personality of the originating system. Should a system be lost, these files and settings can be applied to the new hardware at network speeds, effectively moving the entire user personality to the new system.
In some cases this new system may exist on in a virtualized partition on a server, allowing the user to gain access to their unique desktop from a browser or remote client that wouldnt otherwise be able to run a Vista desktop. The example we were shown had a legacy XP machine running in stripped down version with under 200K of RAM running Vista remotely. Performance seemed good but likely will be limited by network speeds and network latency.
The full benefits require Vista because XP, which was based on thinking that came out of the 3rd major revision of Microsoft. This mostly focused on isolated desktops increasingly connected to the Internet over slow connections and wasnt written to allow entire personalities to be swapped out quickly.
Currently Im not aware of anyone planning or deploying Vista that isnt using Optimized Desktop, or more accurately, the Microsoft Desktop Optimization Pack to deploy Vista. This tool set provides much of the advantage to Vista in the first place and showcases many, if not most, of the enterprise benefits of Vista.
Live Mesh: Anticipating Windows 7
Live Mesh now moves this concept from one that is based on .NET and primarily Windows Vista, to one that is based on the cloud and is operating system independent. It is in this offering, particularly as it compares to Optimized Desktop, where you can see the dramatic change in thinking. On the surface both solve similar things in terms of allowing the personality of a machine to be portable. But while Optimized Desktop required a Microsoft back end and Windows Vista, Live Mesh does not and is designed to be a cross platform solution, at least with regard to the desktop.
This also looks at application portability, not just data and settings. This suggests an effort to tie the experience more tightly to the user by reducing completely the dependencies on specific hardware. In this case the platform is being designed to pass the entire personality (including applications) from one machine to another regardless of whether that machine is PC or Smart Phone, or Apple or Linux.
Much like Microsofts other Live services this is connected to the cloud. This provides the opportunity for a rich set of related services everything from offloading time consuming virus scans to replacing the need from traditional backups and patches. It anticipates a future set of operating systems from Microsoft which are much more similar and embraces alternative platforms rather than locking them out.
It also means that traditional Migrations effectively go away. Services will handle them in the cloud and you will receive hardware (both PCs and Smartphones) that arrive fully configured and ready to go.
The OEM or IT division can retain a virtualized representation of your machine and fully diagnose and correct non-hardware problems remotely with minimal impact on you. In fact, for many things they should be able to automatically discover a potential problem before you see it and correct it.
You could even have optimization services that could remotely tune up your desktop, keep your applications updated (both patched and versioned) and allow you to log into a clean, safe, more reliable and optimized desktop each and every day.
But while this is out in early Beta much of the promise for this will take several years to develop and mature after Windows 7 launches in 2010. But in contrast to the Optimized Desktop, it showcases more of the new Microsoft than any other initiative I have seen.
By looking at the differences between the Optimized Desktop and Live Mesh you get a very real sense of Microsoft 4.0 and Microsoft 5.0. The changes are stark and telling, from closed and proprietary, to open and cross platform, from client/server, to Software as a Service (SAAS) and Cloud Computing, from PC based to PC/Smartphone independent. Or from rigid and Microsoft centric, to flexible and platform independent. Both provide solid improvements over the way things were. Optimized Desktop is being used today, while Live Mesh will be something that will be used more in the Windows 7 timeframe in terms of enterprise deployments.
For many of us we will always look at Microsoft in one way, but companies change over time and Microsoft has shifted massively in terms of focus over the last decade. It looks like they are in the midst of another major shift. For instance, with Live Mesh, Microsoft is potentially helping Apple and Linux integrate in a future Microsoft Enterprise. Preparing for that shift seems like both an obvious and a prudent recommendation.