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From Office to Hyper-V to Azure, the much-maligned 'dying dinosaur' has a lot going for it as the Ballmer era winds down
11 things going Microsoft's way ... as it bids goodbye to Ballmer
With the announcement of the imminent retirement of CEO Steve Ballmer, it seems that everyone loves to bash Microsoft. The conventional wisdom holds that the company Ballmer leaves behind is nothing but a dying dinosaur with no place in a post-PC world. Much of the criticism is justified, of course. Microsoft remains closely tied to a fading, Windows-centric vision of computing rapidly being overtaken by mobile devices, the consumerization of IT, and cloud services.
Still, don't be blinded by the bad news: Microsoft is far from finished. It remains a powerful player in tech with plenty of smart people working on important projects. Here are 11 positive things Microsoft is doing that will not only keep Redmond rolling but also help the company thrive.
1. Microsoft Office remains the king of productivity
Windows may be suffering its woes, but Microsoft Office still reigns supreme in the productivity software sphere, will no real contenders in sight. Though Google Apps may be making inroads with businesses, as Gartner contends, Microsoft Office's overall share remains an estimated 95 percent.
Here, Microsoft's dominance is more than market share. Office 2013 is far and away the most powerful, most complete productivity suite for office workers, and Microsoft's new Office 365 service delivers much of that power in a cloud-based subscription model. Sure, Microsoft Office can be complex, but if your company goes beyond the basics, there is little chance Google Apps will soon be fulfilling your serious document and spreadsheet needs.
2. Microsoft is warming to open source
Microsoft has come a long way in its stance toward open source since Ballmer famously called Linux a "cancer" in 2001. While far from open source-friendly, Microsoft has become more amenable to open source -- good not only for Microsoft but the tech industry at large.
3. Windows Phone brings innovation to mobile -- no, really
Windows Phone hasn't taken the mobile market by storm, but don't be too quick to dismiss it. Now third in global smartphone OS market share, Windows Phone is getting notice for its sleek nonskeumorphic design (hello, iOS 7). Moreover, its tile-based Metro interface puts actual information right on the home screen -- surprisingly useful on small mobile devices. Plus, the Windows Phone contact manager has been deservedly praised for its ability to sync and de-dupe contact information from multiple accounts -- including social media.
4. Microsoft developer tools and relations are first-class
Despite challenges from newer, flashier, technologies, Microsoft somehow manages to keep luring developers to Windows, .Net, and C#. Maintaining that progress is far from a sure thing, but Microsoft's practice -- mostly unacknowledged -- of actually paying developers to write programs and apps has kept many development shops going while helping to kick-start Microsoft's new platforms. That's one reason why the Windows Store hit 100,000 apps just eight months after Windows 8 launched.
First-class developers tools don't hurt either. Microsoft Visual Studio 2012, one of InfoWorld's 2013 Technology of the Year Winners, supports so many languages, frameworks, and target environments that you'll need a database to keep track of it all.
5. The enterprise still runs on Windows Server
Microsoft's server ecosystem remains a fixture in corporate data centers. At the center of it all is Windows Server, which, with Version 2012, keeps getting stronger and more innovative. Microsoft Exchange long ago won the corporate email battle and isn't in danger of losing its crown any time soon. In fact, Microsoft hopes to ride Exchange's success to the cloud.
SharePoint, meanwhile, has lost steam as it has evolved from a straightforward departmental solution to an overly complex IT implementation, but it remains at home in thousands of corporate data centers and branch offices. That doesn't even address the legions of custom corporate Windows applications still powering many companies.
6. Internet Explorer and Bing are no longer jokes
Savvy Web surfers used to preach that "friends don't let friends use IE" -- especially those who recognized early that IE6 was the single worst browser ever created. But IE10 is a robust offering, fully competitive with Firefox and Chrome, and by making Do Not Track its default, Microsoft puts some meat behind its claim to be the "privacy leader." While browser share data is debatable, some analysts peg IE as the market leader, thanks to the browser's latest versions.
Meanwhile, Bing has long been a joke without a punch line. But its desktop version has become a visually attractive, multimedia-oriented Google alternative that delivers credible results, leading to a steady growth in search market share.
7. SkyDrive has improved
Despite arriving late to the game, Microsoft's cloud storage, sharing, and syncing service now claims more than 250 million users -- primarily due to deep integrations with Office 365, Windows 8, and Windows Phone.
SkyDrive is all about leveraging the Windows connection with smart features like click-to-run Office deployment. But the service is also available to iOS and Android users, and it's received positive marks for its big redesign last fall. What used to seem a hopelessly confusing mess now makes a lot more sense. SkyDrive is yet another example of Microsoft working hard to catch up with a product specifically tailored for Windows users.
8. Kinect for Xbox 360 is far more important than you think
Though the company still isn't making much money on Xbox itself, the importance of Microsoft gaining an foothold in the living room can't be underestimated. First, the Xbox proves Microsoft can win even in markets where Windows isn't a big factor. Second, the motion-based Kinect controller has a future far beyond video games: It's the prototype and platform for a new kind of UI, potentially replacing everything from the keyboard/mouse to touchscreens and voice control.
9. Microsoft's Hyper-V is giving VMware fits
VMware has long owned the server virtualization market, but Microsoft's Hyper-V is a true contender, especially at the low end. The latest version, Hyper-V 2012, narrows the gap with vSphere, finally becoming "good enough" for companies to turn rely on, especially given its significant price advantage.
The emergence of System Center 2012, which includes virtualization management, has been particularly important. While few companies are ripping and replacing VMware in favor of Hyper-V, IDC says Hyper-V's market share is 27.6 percent of new servers going into service, up from 20.3 percent in 2008. Buyers in South America and Asia, as well as small businesses in developed markets, are increasingly turning toward Hyper-V instead of vSphere.
10. Azure is surprisingly slick and well integrated
Amazon Web Services still dominates the IaaS market, but Azure offers great price-performance, Windows tool-chain integration, and -- not surprisingly -- better integration with Microsoft services than AWS. While it offers all the expected virtual machines, databases, and storage blocks, Azure isn't just about working with Microsoft servers -- it offers key open source options, too, including Ubuntu Server and OpenSuse. And its management interface is shockingly slick compared to AWS.
Plenty of competitors offer cloud-based computing resources, but the combination of Azure's features, Microsoft's market muscle, and improved pricing have helped Azure subscriptions jump 48 percent in six months, earning $1 billion in revenue in the past year.
11. Microsoft is hinting at a willingness to change
Much of this list represents turnarounds for Microsoft -- areas where the company is fixing what has long been broken. The company has made other reversals as well, from putting the Start button back in Windows 8 to quadrupling its cloud investment to its recent reorganization into four divisions dedicated to specific strategies.
But the big question is how it replaces outgoing CEO Steve Ballmer. Does it choose a new leader who will focus on users more than features for features sake, and push for a future centered on services as well as software? Given technology's tectonic shift from the desktop toward mobility and the cloud, this is a pivotal moment for Microsoft to show it's serious about being a long-term player.