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The second phase of Microsoft's layoffs is all about focus

Mary Branscombe | Sept. 24, 2014
As details of the second round of Microsoft layoffs have trickled out, the only obvious pattern has been cutting back on what's not core to the platforms and productivity focus that CEO Satya Nadella has been emphasizing (or the explicitly protected Xbox side of the house), plus further tidying up of which teams sit where.

The new Azure DocumentDB service does take ideas like tunable consistency from Pileus, a system Doug Terry's team built to show how you can have fine-grained control and service level agreements even in cloud-scale, geo-replicated storage. Since Terry's biography on the MSR site refers to him in the past tense, it looks as if won't carry on working with Microsoft after the closure of the lab. MSR Silicon Valley was an obvious place to save money, if a rather tone-deaf move by Microsoft when it's still often seen as irrelevant in the area.

Robotics research

Dropping the robotics research team also makes painful sense. They weren't working on robotic systems like self-balancing robots or self-driving cars; they concentrated on research into development tools for robotics, like Microsoft Robotics Developer Studio, and on interactions between humans and robotics.

Both are interesting and important areas but neither of them are going to give Microsoft major market share or breakout success in a market that is still largely confined to academics and hobbyists. The big successes in robotics will go to the companies that build robots rather than the companies that build tools for building robots. This is clearly Microsoft making a painful but practical decision to narrow its focus from working in areas that are unusual, interesting, full of potential, and unlikely ever to have a major impact, to projects where it can really stand out.

What about Trustworthy Computing?

The closure of the Trustworthy Computing Group was initially far more concerning, especially as security isn't an area where Microsoft can afford to lose any talent. When Bill Gates took the unprecedented step of stopping all product development for a month while every developer at Microsoft retrained in writing secure code, it didn't just rescue Windows and Office from the swamp of viruses they were slowly drowning in. It also helped change the mindset across the industry to include the idea that security matters in product development, in design, in deployment, and at every stage of technology. Microsoft didn't just teach its own developers security thinking. It didn't just recruit security experts and researchers to work with the Microsoft development teams, in house or as consultants. It also invited in hackers and penetration testers to tell Microsoft what it was doing wrong, and everything it learned from them, it put into white papers and annual reports and training materials that it made freely available to anyone who wanted to create more secure products. Without the Trustworthy Computing Initiative at Microsoft, we probably wouldn't have an ISO standard in secure development today. If you still think that Windows is an OS with security problems, you haven't been keeping up with the major improvements Microsoft has made, release by release and month by month.


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