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Microsoft's productivity drive could kill software as we know it

Mark Hachman | July 14, 2014
On Thursday, Satya Nadella charted a new course for Microsoft, focused on interconnectivity and productivity--one where, conceivably, the company's standard-setting Office applications and other products and services could slowly blur into different modes of working with the same data.

But Nadella also calls out other Microsoft technologies that aren't so much products as services — namely its "Oslo" technology (now renamed Delve) and Cortana, the digital assistant powering the latest iteration of Microsoft's Windows Phone — and they interact in new ways with data that Microsoft has accumulated elsewhere. Other services, like Skype Translator, will help bridge the language barriers of workers collaborating across continents.

"Increasingly, all of these experiences will become more connected to each other, more contextual and more personal," Nadella writes.

Software as services

Microsoft's role, as Nadella draws it, is to intelligently facilitate these connections between devices, people, and data, parsing the data in such a way that it's actually useful. "All of these apps will be explicitly engineered so anybody can find, try and then buy them in friction-free ways," Nadella writes. "They will be built for other ecosystems so as people move from device to device, so will their content and the richness of their services — it's one way we keep people, not devices, at the center."

Note Nadella's emphasis on "people, not devices." It's a quiet hint of how Microsoft will seek to differentiate itself as the company rethinks its strategy

It's not too long ago that a company like Google, for example, regarded services like Google Drive or Gmail as a service that belonged on its own platforms. But that's less true today. While email can flow freely across platforms, it's the intelligence on top of it — reading your email to learn about an upcoming flight, and determining how soon you need to leave for the airport, factoring in traffic — that's increasingly becoming platform-specific. I can open my Gmail on my Windows Phone, but Google Now will ping me only if I have my Samsung Galaxy Note 3 handy.

It's conceivable, then, that what we think of as Microsoft "products" may simply evolve into services. The so-called "walled garden," where companies prevent data from leaving, is a thing of the past. Data flows freely in and out. Users are invited to partake of the services offered by Microsoft, Google, and Apple — but those digital servants never venture outside their corporate walls. (Compare this approach to the way Wolfram Research handles data with its latest Mathematica release.)

You already know this to be true: You can open a spreadsheet in Excel, or in Word. You can also manipulate that data via a Web app, if you like. Or to use Nadella's example, you can take language — just another form of data, whether it be French, Japanese, or English — and interact with it via Skype, Word, or Outlook, translating it and correlating it to your contacts. It's the last bit, though, where Microsoft's native software is required.


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