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Windows Azure: Pending Success or Eventual Niche?

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Microsoft has had its successes and failures over time, and it has managed to come first with some products even if it came later in the game. Is Microsoft going to be as successful with Windows Azure as it has been with the Windows operating system? Or will it remain a niche player like Windows Mobile?

Like any large company, Microsoft has had several great products, some reasonable ones and some total failures. Among those which are considered failures (or at the very least limited successes considering the amount of money and number of developers invested in them) we can start from Microsoft’s early days with Windows 1.0 (1985), Windows 2.0 and Windows 386; continuing with WebTV (1995), Windows Millennium (2000) and Internet Explorer 6; and more recent examples such as Zune, Windows Mobile or Vista.

In a PC Magazine article entitled “The Bottom 10: Worst Software Disasters”, John Dvorak placed Windows 1.0 as #7 among worst software products:

I mean, come on. Shipping in 1985 to a ho-hum reception, this was such a joke that Microsoft itself put on a public roast when it finally rolled out the product. Its follow-on brethren, including Windows 2.0 and Windows 386, were just as bad.

That is quite interesting considering that Windows ended up being the most successful operating system in the world. Microsoft learned its lessons and Windows 3.1 was a hit followed by the very successful Windows 95. But later, Microsoft flopped again with Windows Millennium Edition (ME) considered among the worst 25 tech products of all time by PC World - Windows ME has been referred to as the real millennium bug, not the timestamp-related Y2K one.

WebTV came as #23 on “Top 25 Biggest Product Flops of All Time” made by WalletPop, and containing a list of failed products from many industries (not just software). PC World placed WebTV on the dishonorable list of products on its The 25 Worst Tech Products of All Time:

WebTV (1995): Getting the Web to display on a typical TV in 1995 was like watching an elephant tap-dance--you were amazed not that it could do it well but that it could do it at all. With the WebTV, Web pages looked horsey, some media formats didn't work at all, and using the remote control to hop from link to link was excruciating.

IE 6 has been perceived as a security nightmare, taking spot #6 on PC World’s worst tech products list. While not being ranked as badly as other Microsoft products, Zune, Windows Mobile and Vista are considered unsuccessful products because Microsoft has invested heavily in them and received little in return.

One of the most commonly-cited product failures is Microsoft Bob, a non-technical user interface for Windows 3.1 and Windows 95. CNET considered it the worst possible product in a decade, while PC World placed it as the #7 worst software product of all time. Regarding Microsoft Bob, Steve Ballmer said as being a situation “where we have decided that we have not succeeded and let's stop”.

Microsoft has also had a large number of successful products, with a brief list including such things as Windows 95, Windows NT, Windows XP, Windows 7, Microsoft Office, The .NET Framework, Visual Studio, and XBox 360.

Microsoft has often been late to the game with products, however in many cases it has managed to catch up and take the lead as with Windows or Office. In a continuation of this trend, Microsoft was definitely not the first out of the gate with a cloud offering, with Windows Azure entering the game after Amazon EC2, Salesforce.com, Rackspace or Google had already established their presence in this market. However, in an article entitled “Can Microsoft Catch Up by Giving Away Azure?”, David Linthicum wondered if Microsoft will manage to catch up with AWS, Google or other cloud providers. Linthicum mentioned that Microsoft has managed to win even if they were not the first to enter a specific market:

Once again Microsoft is late to the party. However, they continue to hold a special space in the hearts of many enterprises, a brand loyalty that most cloud computing providers just don't have. The concept here is to get as many users on the platform as possible, in the shortest amount of time. However, is that a good strategy for Microsoft?

If you look at the history of Microsoft they seem to get into games late, and still win. Their entrance into the emerging Web in the '90s was almost kicking and screaming after the Microsoft Network was released. However, once they set their sites on the Web, they owned the browser market after only a year.

But the cloud is different as Linthicum remarked:

The cloud is a bit different. Cloud computing providers have already established their presence in the market. It's going to be difficult to attack users who are already loyal to one or two of the larger players, that is... unless you're willing to give it away for free.

The reality of cloud computing is that the subscription cost of the platform has very little bearing on the ROI of the platform. Azure, like the other cloud providers, will have to prove to be productive in order to be truly cost effective. That also means being open, something that Microsoft has had issues with in the past. It does not look like the leopard has changed its stripes with Azure.

What do you think? Will Windows Azure be as successful as the .NET Framework and Visual Studio, or is it destined to be a minor player like Windows Mobile or the Zune?

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