Microsoft: The $71 Billion Cloud Underdog

If I say “cloud computing,” what companies come to mind? Amazon’s innovative Amazon Web Services Cloud? Google’s cloud-based collaboration tools, Google Apps? Salesforce.com, the pioneer in moving business applications to the Web? Facebook because, well, it’s Facebook? How about Microsoft? Before you laugh and close your Chrome browser, hear me out. While perhaps lacking the sex appeal (and stock price appreciation) of the other companies I mentioned, Microsoft is the dark horse that will bring the benefits of the cloud to mainstream businesses. How can I make that claim? Well, if it pleases this jury, Microsoft has the motive, means and opportunity to win the enterprise cloud.

Motive

As the saying goes, people are motivated by either greed or fear. I think for many big companies, it’s more the latter. And Microsoft has a lot to be scared about.

If you poke behind its $71 billion in revenue and 39 percent operating margins, 30 percent of the goldmine comes from multiyear volume licensing agreements, which Microsoft calls Enterprise Agreements (EAs). According to industry analyst firm Forrester Research, “these profitable agreements bring in the kind of regular revenue preferred by financial-market analysts that monitor Microsoft’s performance.”

What motivates a customer to sign up for an Enterprise Agreement instead of simply buying Microsoft products, like Office, off the shelf? Well, historically, Microsoft pitched EAs as a way to ensure you can cover your workforce with Microsoft products at a discounted price level.

With companies investing in post-PC devices like smartphones and tablets, and evaluating alternatives to Microsoft productivity solutions, such as Google Apps or Salesforce.com, CIOs are starting to wonder whether renewing their EA is still a top priority.

In response to this threat, Microsoft is now pushing its Software Assurance (SA) licensing model, which allows customers to upgrade to newer products and also use its cloud services. The reason for the possible shift, Forrester says, is that “the twin revolutions of client mobility and cloud servers will kill device-based licensing, which is Microsoft’s existing model.”

So if Microsoft doesn’t embrace the cloud in a big way, the EA gravy train could come to an end.

Means

Apple is cool. Facebook is friendly. And Google isn’t evil. Yet look across a sea of computers in a typical company, and you’ll still see Microsoft everywhere.

And I’m not just talking about Windows. Microsoft has two key assets that will help it win the enterprise cloud:

  • Office: While the Web and Web-based apps are fabulous for consuming content and even collaborating around it, Microsoft Office is still the standard in productivity to create corporate content. Love or hate those PowerPoint presentations, but they are still how most companies run. And for flexible analysis, Excel is unmatched. Heck, the Macintosh Business Unit at Microsoft (which is primarily Office for Mac) is a $350 million business on its own.
  • Outlook/Exchange: For many workers, Microsoft Outlook (with Microsoft Exchange Server on the backend) is the first thing they boot up to start their workday, and the program they remain in all day long. According to industry analyst firm Radicati, 301 million corporate mailboxes used Outlook in 2010. Indeed, some companies have switched from Microsoft Outlook/Exchange to Google Apps and back, because users are too addicted to the interface and functionality of Microsoft Outlook.

So Microsoft still owns two of the key ways “knowledge workers” work with knowledge.

Opportunity

Microsoft isn’t working from a standing start. It actually jumped into the cloud relatively early in 2008 with its Business Productivity Online Suite (BPOS), a hosted platform for collaboration. While BPOS suffered from many challenges, mainly because it was based on a platform that wasn’t designed for the cloud, Microsoft made it clear several years ago that they are “all in” as a company in the cloud.

This year, after many delays and much anticipation, Microsoft finally announced its first platform built for the cloud, Office 365. The new version of Exchange is finally on par with its on-premise alternative. Microsoft SharePoint Online is now flexible enough to meet many enterprise use cases. And Microsoft Lync Online, a real-time chat and videoconferencing system, could be a game changer for company productivity.

In parallel, Microsoft is working away on Windows 8, its big bet on the tablet revolution. With all of Microsoft’s failed past attempts at mobility and tablets, some level of cynicism is expected. But some believe Microsoft’s conviction is real. If Microsoft even gets it 80 percent right on tablets, they will likely win in enterprises that are used to the manageability of Windows, and will be attracted to the inevitably deeper Office integration.

Conclusion

Don’t get me wrong: The innovation in the cloud is coming from all over, mainly from start-ups. For many of these start-ups and other non-enterprise organizations, a non-Microsoft approach will likely be the winner. But for the millions of you working in corporate America, Microsoft is probably the one bringing the cloud to a desktop near you.

Nick Mehta is CEO of LiveOffice and has served in senior operating roles in the enterprise and consumer technology markets for much of his career. He spent more than five years at Symantec Corporation and Veritas Software Corporation (now Symantec), where he served as vice president and general manager of the Enterprise Vault information archiving and discovery software business.


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