Steve Ballmer dropped a bomb shell in a speech the other day at the University of Washington, letting it be known that the desktop software company was basically betting it all on the cloud. In a report on the speech on PaidContent.org, Ballmer reportedly said the company was committing as much 70 percent of its employees to cloud projects, a number he said could reach as high as 90 percent in the coming years. As I interpret it, this doesn't necessarily mean they are abandoing the desktop, or that these employees are working exclusively on cloud projects, but they are at least spending some of their work time on cloud-related ventures.
Regardless, that's really an astounding statement, and even though Ballmer often seems to be a bit clumsy when speaking in public, I'm quite sure he doesn't say things like this without some thought beforehand (at least I would hope not). If this is true, it means a large percentage of the software giant's focus has shifted completely, a massive cultural and corporate adjustment, the likes of which we might never have seen before in the technology industry.
What is Microsoft?
You have to remember that Microsoft is really several companies:
* Consumer operating systems and desktop software (mostly Office)
* Enterprise software
* Phone operating system
* Games and Zune
I can see how Microsoft could commit to the cloud for all but the enterprise users, many of whom don't want to live in the cloud, at least not yet, and probably not completely. If you read the article carefully, they are not totally committing to the cloud per se, but they are assigning vast resources to the effort.
Is the Microsoft Ready for This?
I've been watching the cloud space for a while now. It has the potential to be cheaper and easier to implement and maintain. Upgrades should happen more seamlessly and much faster than they currently do. Instead of waiting years for the next upgrade, you would get it incrementally, but there are legitimate security and privacy concerns, not to mention uptime questions.
And what would this do for Microsoft's revenue stream? Microsoft has lived on expensive upgrades for years. Office and Windows remain huge cash cows for them. Many companies are committed to Exchange, Sharepoint and other enterprise software packages typically delivered on a company's internal servers (although Microsoft has introduced cloud versions of many of these packages).
It could be that times are changing, but when I've seen companies talk about the cloud at conferences over the last year, most are just dabbling in it. Many are frightened of it. Consumers will be an easier sell, and the phone and game markets are no-brainers. Many of us are used to using online services today. Whether we use Microsoft's or not remains to be seen, but if Ballmer is being truthful, perhaps we have seen a glimpse of a future Microsoft and it lives in the cloud. It's just so hard to believe that a company that has feasted on the desktop for so long could do such a complete about-face.