Ballmer's Silver Hammer

malevansWith Windows 7 shipping in less than a month, we’re sure to smell a whiff of the Microsoft of old from the Pacific Northwest. After years of dropped balls and transitions from the Gates era to whatever we’re now in, Steve Ballmer should have plenty to feel good about. Steve Sinofsky has completed his personal reworking from Office chief to Windows czar, and the new OS arrives just in time to crest with the netbook wave.

On the Office front, the O2010 tech preview is in a classic Microsoft holding pattern, waiting to touch down next year in the wake of the new Windows release. Microsoft marketing managers still won’t answer the simple question (What are the features NOT available in the Web Apps?) They’re glad to rationalize the answer as: we’re providing the features Web users want. The real answer continues to lie in the politics of the transition from disk to Web.

What is new is that Powerpoint and Excel the Web versions can now function with somewhat greater fidelity than Google App’s competitor. Compare them to the desktop versions, you’re in the old political weeds. Compare it to Google, not bad. SkyDrive starts to look like an interesting service, if only (and importantly) as a reason to get a Windows Live ID and 25 gigs of free storage.

I find the desktop/Web Apps comparison a cul de sac Microsoft will do well to get away from as fast as possible. The central message for nextgen realtime apps is that Office Web Apps are soon to be highly competitive with the alternatives. The collaboration features alone are so basic that my fundamental question is whether the desktop apps support them in realtime, not the other way around. Word is still not baked and seems to continue to suffer from oldthink strangleholds, but if the first wave gets some traction with realtimers it may tip things our way before ship date.

The other mixed messaging is of course Silverlight. It’s easy to wonder whether Microsoft really gets what they have going here, but the underlying answer is yes, with the political caveat. Reports of a recent internal meeting were devoid of mentions of Silverlight, with the usual Bill-era science projects around Walls and other esoteric research fantasies taking up most of the troop rallying.

Nonetheless, Silverlight is the most strategic part of the new Microsoft message, that Redmond services will catch, match, and exceed existing competitor platforms. If you count the Windows 7 launch as the left side of the timeline and the PDC launch of Windows Azure a month later as the right, Silverlight is the connective tissue that drives the new hybrid platform.

With Windows battened down and Office Web Apps in the evangelism stage, Microsoft is competing primarily with Google’s notion of radical disruption financed by advertising. Coming as it does from the enterprise IT stronghold of corporate hegemony, Windows and Office adoption collides with the new monetization challenge because of the lack of a legitimate user contract for behavioral data. We’ve known all along that Microsoft could see what we do on the desktop, but they haven’t got our permission to do anything with it.

By contrast, Google and other Web services require that attention farming to do anything, and offerings like Gmail remind us of how our text is being tracked even as they reassure us that that data is only being used anonymously as part of the larger algorithms behind the Google engine. Microsoft’s investment in the Web Apps is in fact the establishment of a user contractual rationale that will pay off with its forthcoming competitive offerings.

Those offerings will not be in the desktop space, however. They will be in the Silverlight engine, mixing the richness Google struggles to reach with HTML 5 with the monetization of attention and, increasingly, gestures mined from socially-aware microcommunities. Don’t let that jargon scare you; it just means Facebook/Twitter 2-or-3 degrees of separation harvesting of the recommendations of people whose recommendations in aggregate are much more efficient than the current search haystack models.

SIlverlight neatly manages the intersection of the desktop circa October with the cloud circa November, and is missing only the orchestration of realtime layer that, pardon the expression, meshes incoming alerts with the behaviorally-filtered authoritative stream. Today, I watch alerts bubble up in an Adobe Air FriendFeed app, sitting atop Gmail, Yammer, and stream aggregation tools. Tomorrow? Silverlight is the only answer this year, and Steve Ballmer must know it.

The good news for those who think this may work strategically but not politically is that Office Web Apps is close enough to provide cover for an aggressive framework built on Silverlight to go after the social crowd. Facebook is within 90 days of an API that can subsume the FriendFeed core, and there are very few things you can’t do today with a combination of Javascript and Silverlight to provide a useful console for managing social flow.

There are at least several projects under way but unannounced that could signal Microsoft cluefullness, but even if an internal project hooked up SIlverlight with, say, Facebook, it would still be messaged as “we’re a platform company providing opportunities for developers”. But Office Web Apps and SkyDrive will need to drive home a Now proposition to have some impact on Google’s aura of inevitability.

Here’s where Bing becomes significant. These guys are kicking ass. They are innovating and pushing out babies faster than the Scobles, and show no signs of slowing down. Does Silverlight have a play in future Bing expansion. Yes. Does the iterative success of a reasonably independent unit inside Redmond provide political cover for similar ground gained by a social unit. Yes.

The key is to compete not with the desktop guys but with Google directly. Office Web Apps stand a good chance of smoking Google Apps in the short term, by competing directly on price and adding features (Silverlight) Google can’t touch. Like Bing, invest in the intelligence of the back end and the editorial layer of services that pry mindshare loose or at least into consideration. My 8 year old daughter talked to me last night about Binging something; I made her repeat it to be sure.

Bing. Social media. Silverlight. SkyDrive. Benioff’s Salesforce is pushing the enterprise envelope with the Google stack, but what does that do for Microsoft but open the eyes of its dominant channel. While we all look at the deltas between Office Desktop and Web, the real disruption may be the extent to which the enterprise is being swallowed by social media.

If virtualization effectively abstracts out the back end hardware and software boundaries, the end result is a new value chain where access to institutional and user data is parsed across business lines, where software “suites” are organically grown and spliced together across social boundaries. Social media IS the enterprise. Bing. Bing. Ballmer’s Silver Hammer.