Microsoft's two-front war for the future

From the edge to the core, Microsoft is feeling the heat from Google and Apple -- and the downside of being chained to the desktop

Steve Ballmer doesn't look much like General George Armstrong Custer -- unless you notice all the arrows stuck in his back. Even when it appears as if Microsoft has scored a win, he takes another hit.

Case in point: This week's kerfuffle over Google's alleged fib about the security of its Apps for Government. Even if the Redmonders and the Department of Justice have the boys from Mountain View dead to rights, there's a much larger point here: Google is going after a core Microsoft business, and if it didn't win this time, it may well win the next. No wonder Microsoft is making such a big deal out of this.

[ Bill Snyder reveals why Microsoft declared war on Google over Android. | Keep up to date on the key tech industry insights with InfoWorld's Industry Standard newsletter. ]

Then there's the tablet issue, which hangs over Ballmer's head like an enemy smoke signal. None other than Dave Willis, one of Gartner's apostles of the enterprise, has told IT execs to wise up and get on board the tablet revolution. Why is that another arrow? Well, duh -- Microsoft is way behind the curve on this one, and if enterprise honchos start hunting for tablets, they're going to look to Apple, or maybe to the Android platform, or to ABM, which means Anybody But Microsoft.

I'm not one to overstate Microsoft's weaknesses; no company making that much money is likely to bite the dust anytime soon. But I do know that the trend we've taken to calling the consumerization of IT is picking up steam, and it's a trend inextricably linked to mobile computing. Google and Apple are much better positioned to profit from it, while Microsoft is still stuck in the desktop-centric past.

iPads to the enterprise
There's still plenty of ambivalence in the enterprise to the use of tablets, smartphones, and so on. But as more and more employees find those technologies indispensable in their home life, the pressure to bring them inside business is irresistible.

"Sales leaders are clamoring to adopt media tablets with their sales teams, as a more engaging way to share sales collateral and promotional materials -- and it won't stop there: Next will come customer relationship management systems, and order entry and sales configuration applications," David Willis, Gartner research vice president, says in a report called "iPad and Beyond: The Media Tablet in Business." Even business analytics will become, well, tabletized. For sales managers, media tablets will be a natural platform for business analytics and performance dashboards.

Note that Willis is not talking about peripheral concerns. Sales support, CRM, and analytics are absolutely central to the enterprise. Willis quite rightly notes in his report that tablets aren't going to replace laptops, but they are a great supplement. That's a whole bunch of incremental business Microsoft won't get if it stays on its present course, not to mention a certain amount of cannibalization of laptop and, thus, Windows sales.

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