While I'm better at procrastination that prognostication, I don't need a crystal ball to know that 2011 is going to be a big year for Microsoft and its customers. The world is moving inexorably to cloud computing, smart mobile devices, and web-based applications, and away from rich but hard to manage client applications that are deployed locally to individual desktops. This change may seem, on the surface, to signal the death knell for traditional software shops like Microsoft. But I don't see it that way. In fact, I think this new generation of computing could reinvigorate the software giant, triggering waves of upgrades in the same way that consumers purchased the same music again and again in different formats as the industry moved from 8-track to cassette and then to CDs in the 1980s.

And this time it's a win-win, meaning this ongoing revolution will eventually benefit Microsoft's customers as much as it will the software giant. One thing that IT implementers and tech enthusiasts often overlook is that technology is a means to an end and not the end in and of itself. By taking advantage of low-cost, high availability, automatically-updated, subscription-based software as a service, the businesses you support can spend more time and money on the business of business, so to speak, and less responding to a never-ending series of technology breakdowns.

So that's the soapbox stuff. Here are some of the major trends I see brewing for 2011.

Cloud computing. The phrase "2011 will be the year of cloud computing" is a bit over the top, mostly because that trend started a few years ago and will simply continue to accelerate. But 2011 will absolutely be a watershed year for cloud computing, both for the wider tech industry and for Microsoft specifically. The products we already know about—Office 365, Windows InTune, and so on—are quite exciting, and point to this software as a service future I mentioned previously. But there's so much more that can be done in this space, not just around porting traditional server products to the cloud, but also in terms of inventing new types of software services, many of which will most likely be built on top of Azure.

Smart mobile computing. When Apple released the first iPhone in 2007, most admitted that it was an astonishing piece of engineering, but IT ignored the device en-masse. But then something unexpected happened: Users demanded the iPhone, including important users with the word "Chief" in their titles. And suddenly, the iPhone made major inroads into business, kicking off the modern trend in consumer-focused IT. In fact, there hasn't been this much call for consumer technology in the workplace since the first knowledge workers of the early 1980's demanded Visicalc and then Lotus 123.

Apple, to its credit, also bolstered the iPhone with more enterprise friendly features over time. And when the company released its follow-on product, the iPad, in early 2010, it was ready for the demand from business. I've been a misunderstood critic of the iPad since the device was announced, but let's be clear here: This device and other simple products like Chrome OS–based notebooks are the future of mainstream computing, both for consumers and business users. In fact, it's hard to imagine a future where anything other than a relatively small number of specialty users actually needs the full power and versatility of a traditional PC.

Yes, the iPad (and Chrome OS) will need to evolve to meet the needs of this future, and yes that future iPad and its competition will look somewhat like a PC. But what the iPad and its ilk bring to the table are some qualities that most want in our daily computing but rarely achieve. Simplicity. Instant on. A full-days' worth of battery life. Auto-updating. Pervasive connectivity. Highly mobile, not sort-of-mobile like today's laptops.

In the same way that today's PCs all resemble the Apple II, tomorrow's PCs will resemble the iPad. It's inevitable. And the first generation of devices that will flit and dart toward that future are coming in 2011.

Smartphones. If you put iPads and iPad-like tablets at the center of the computing experience, and traditional PCs and laptops at one end, the other end, of course, is dominated by smartphones, and this will continue to be the case for the foreseeable future. While the small screens and non-standard OSs on these devices will somewhat limit the size of the audience that can rely solely on such a device, it's still pretty impressive how many people—especially those traveling for work—can already do so. And it doesn't hurt that the coming generation of users is growing up with these devices. They won't have to figure out how to live with such devices, as we do. They simply do live with such devices. And they love them.

Smartphones offer the same personal connection that the iPad does, but in a form that can fit in your pocket and thus be your regular companion, at work and at play. This endears people to their phones in ways that don't typically happen with traditional PCs, leading to a sort of brand enthusiasm and dedication that Dell or HP would kill for.

For 2011, of course, Microsoft has a lot of work to do to push Windows Phone to both consumers and the enterprise. But as noted previously, the software giant is off to a good start, at least technologically speaking. There aren't many people using Windows Phone yet. But of those that do, most love it almost unconditionally. This is the type of dedication one doesn't usually see outside of Apple, and in the Microsoft world, only the Xbox 360 garners this type of fierce dedication. That's a good sign for the platform. Now Microsoft needs to show up and prove that it's serious.

Windows on traditional PCs. After the perceived success of Windows 7, Microsoft has a pretty serious problem on its hands: How it can it possibly achieve the same level of success for Windows 8, the next Windows version? The simple answer is, it can't. Windows 7 followed the disaster that was Windows Vista, and as Microsoft proved a few years ago, even Windows Vista marketed under a different name was an easy sell. For Windows 8, Microsoft is going to have to go in a different direction. And my advice this time around is to go with the heart rather than the mind. What I mean by this is that where Windows 7 shored up the platform and made Windows something we didn't need to be embarrassed about, Windows 8 needs to be exciting.

This isn't as hard as it sounds. Thanks to the proven methodology of Sinofsky and company, Windows  already has a secure, solid foundation, and that work can certainly carry over. What it needs is a little fun—a little innovation. And the way you get there is to do with Windows what Microsoft did with Windows Phone: Assume the platform is a failure, find out what users really want, and give it to them.

And don't assume that users won't line up at midnight like they did so long ago for Windows 95: That's exactly what Mac users do every single time Apple foists another point release on them, bragging about the hundreds of new features it supposedly packs in each release. We can get there too, but to do so, Windows needs to exceed expectations for a change.

The start of all this, of course, is the first Windows 8 beta, which I'm told will hit in the July to September timeframe. Unfortunately, Sinofsky being Sinofsky, he's already a long way toward determining what Windows 8 will be. So this last expectation is, perhaps, my most far-fetched. Hey, you gotta dream.

 

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