In the late 1990s, Internet pioneer Netscape pushed Microsoft further than it had ever been pushed, forcing the software giant to not just create its own web browser but integrate it into Windows. But Netscape's most important influence on Microsoft, though it came about a decade late, wasn't the web browser. It was Internet time.
Internet time, in case you're not up on the memes of the 1990s, refers to the notion that things happen faster in the frictionless online world. In this case, we're talking about technology, and the delivery of new and updated software. Netscape's goal, never really realized, was to supersede or bypass Windows and other monolithic platforms of the past with a new web-based platform in which what we'd now call cloud-based services can be updated routinely without disrupting users, since they would never really have to deal with that mess.
Companies such as Google, which couldn't exist without the Internet and thus see everything through that lens, obviously operate on Internet time naturally and exclusively. But as the 2000s unfolded—and the original Netscape gasped its last breath—the competitive pressure let up and the firm inexplicably went back to its old ways. Development of Internet Explorer, which had been rapidly developed over several product versions to meet the Netscape threat, was effectively halted for years.
Bad habit. It's like riding a bike.
The subsequent decade-plus speaks for itself. But the Microsoft of today has, if belatedly, learned from the mistakes of the past. And a big part of what makes me bullish about this company's future is that it has finally gotten the message. And you can see this across the firm's many product lines.
I've written in the past that Microsoft's move from on-premises software to cloud services should be counted among the past decade's most seamless technology transitions and that the firm's ability to provide customers with hybrid solutions that bridge the on-premises and cloud worlds is a unique strength and differentiator.
We've also discussed Microsoft's new approach to traditional software products such as Office, which are still large, monolithic software applications (or, in this case, suites) that need to be installed onto users' PCs. But the ways in which Office is installed and then maintained over time are new, and here we see an interesting model where old-school software basically behaves like, and is updated as, online services. Indeed, the Office team's commitment to continue updating Office regularly on an ongoing basis really blurs the lines between what we think of as "services" and what we think of as "software."
And then there's the final frontier: hardware. Anyone who owns a Surface device of any stripe knows that Microsoft issues firmware updates for these devices every month alongside its regularly scheduled Patch Tuesday updates. Not every Surface model every month, but pretty close to it. These firmware updates fix bugs, of course, but they also improve performance, or battery life, or reliability, or address other user concerns.
It hasn't been quite as successful with Windows Phone, thanks in large part to the recalcitrance of its wireless carrier "partners"—they're almost adversaries in my book, but whatever—which can and do block software updates so they can sell customers new phones instead. However, 2013 was still a banner year for Windows Phone updates, with Microsoft delivering three major updates to Windows Phone 8 over the past 12 months. No Android user was that lucky.
Now before we start patting ourselves on the back for the amazing world we all live in, I should at least address the elephant in the room. I know that many readers, IT pros and old-timers like myself among them, can already see the dark side to this scheme. That is, a world in which everything—software, services and hardware—is constantly updated is also a world in which problems can very easily bring everything to a grinding halt.
We don't have to go all the way back to Windows NT 4.0 Service Pack 2 (SP2)—though, admit it, many of you are still burned by that one—to find these kinds of problems. In fact, in the past month alone, two of Microsoft's software devices, the Windows RT-based Surface 2 and the Surface Pro 2, have succumbed to issues that were caused in part by, yes, recent firmware updates.
The Surface 2 issue, a cute little BitLocker recovery key bug, was just fixed this week. But the December firmware update for Surface Pro 2 was so buggy that Microsoft pulled it. And despite assurances from Microsoft that it was working on a fix—those who did install it are experiencing dramatically less battery life than before, as well as other issues—it hasn't yet appeared.
So not everything is perfect in this brave new world. I get that. But I do feel that if any company can get this transition right, it's Microsoft. And Microsoft's unique combination of on-premises and cloud offerings, as well as decades spent meeting the needs of business users, will really help the company make that leap.