Cloud Wars: Microsoft Office 365 Takes the Battle to Google

Thursday Oct 21st 2010 by Rob Enderle

One expert opines that Microsoft’s Office 365, its hosted software in the cloud initiative, is gaining momentum against the popularity of Google Apps.

The advantage in any battle – and this is classic Sun Tzu – goes with the army fighting on its home turf because they hold both logistic and knowledge of terrain advantages. This can be mitigated through surprise and overwhelming force, which is how Germany took most of Europe in the Second World War. It’s also how Google initially seemed to be moving against Microsoft.

But just as the Blitzkrieg depended on speed and failed in Russia because it got bogged down, Google’s attack on Microsoft has become equally bogged down. Microsoft’s Office 365 – hosted software in the cloud – is taking back the initiative. If Microsoft can maintain the pressure, Google is unlikely to recover at least in the desktop application space.

Let’s explore that and some of the other battles this week.

Microsoft’s Exposure

Like pre-World War II France, Microsoft had become complacent entering into this century. It had failed to maintain the perception of value for their Office, Windows, and IE keystone products. All became attractive targets for those primarily focused on eliminating Microsoft’s dominance.

The Mozilla Foundation with Firefox lined up against IE, the Linux movement and Apple separately went after Windows, and Google and Sun (Open Office and Star Office) went after Microsoft Office – all with surprising initial success.

Microsoft had felt secure behind their virtual Maginot-Line of compatibility, which had the firm believing it was unassailable. Hence it was unable to move quickly to address what was a massive attack it didn’t anticipate. In every area it bled market share but one – Office, which avoided the twin catastrophes that were Windows Vista and IE6, and actually held on the best.

Why the Attacks Failed

The attacks failed for two reasons: they were uncoordinated and under-funded.

The most pitiful was the attack by Sun with Open Office and Star Office. This closest military metaphor was Custer’s Last Stand, where an arrogant small force tried to fight a vastly superior number on terrain they clearly didn’t understand. It was quite literally a massacre and it’s no wonder that Oracle is pretty much pulling the plug on Sun’s approach. The unsuccessful effort is causing a rather impressive internal conflict that will likely do more to eliminate this threat to Microsoft Office than anything Microsoft itself could do.

The most successful were Firefox and Apple, and of the two, Apple was clearly the best funded and continues as the only sustaining success in terms of strong market share gains. Firefox won initially, largely because the defense of compatibility doesn’t work at all in a standards-based environment. It was slowed down because it was massively under-funded against the awakened giant that Microsoft became. Firefox was more like an internal rebellion because this was Mozilla’s home turf as much as it was Microsoft’s.

Apple’s success reminds me of the US Civil war but in an alternative universe where the South did rise again. Well-funded, focused, and with a beautifully executed strategy, of the initial Microsoft challengers, only Apple stands out as an unmitigated success. But, fortunately for Microsoft Office, they really never targeted that product.

Linux was more like a political fight where the Microsoft eventually embraced key concepts (Open Source/Interoperability) and made them their own. The Linux folks seemed to have increasing trouble figuring out what they truly stood for outside of just being against Microsoft.

In the end none of these attacks was coordinated across more than one platform. Against a solidly entrenched, better funded, and increasingly focused foe, progress (with Apple being the exception) was largely stalled.

Google Apps vs. Office 365

The most coordinated attack came from Google, which came at Microsoft, over time, with two operating systems (Android and the Chrome OS), a browser (Chrome), email (Gmail) and a productivity suite (Google Apps).

On paper they had every base covered but they seemed to forget they were fighting on Microsoft’s home turf and they gave Microsoft the critical time the company needed to respond.

All Microsoft needs is an offering that is good enough and by all initial reports Office 365 is good enough. This fight is likely over if Microsoft can keep up the pressure. The reason is that Google Apps had one sustaining advantage – price – while the twin disadvantages – security and high migration cost – were either not realized or successfully offset by the price advantage. Given time and focus, Microsoft will reduce the cost delta with Office 365, while the security-privacy exposure with Google’s approach has become far more critical.

As a result, reports indicate that the momentum Google built up is now shifting to Office 365 and back to Microsoft. Given Microsoft still has the home turf advantage it is unlikely Google will be able to shift it back.

Wrapping Up

Attacks in war or in business against large entrenched vendors need to be fast, well-funded, and coordinated. Oracle, Cisco, and a younger Microsoft stand as examples of how such attacks are successfully executed. PeopleSoft, 3Com, and Lotus are all examples of what the result can be.

However, if the attack drags on for years, is under-funded and poorly coordinated, the result is what we are now seeing with Office 365, with the entrenched vendor shrugging it off and the attacker forced to regroup and reconsider.

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