Why History and the Enterprise Will Be Kind to Steve Ballmer

We predicted the future of SharePoint in August of 2013. The thrust of that column was that Microsoft’s “Devices and Services” lens on the world was slowly bringing about an evolution of SharePoint from a distinctly-branded server product to a loosely-organized collection of cloud-based services.

Since then, Microsoft’s gone and found itself a new CEO who has taken the company on a much-ballyhooed pivot from “Devices and Services” to “Cloud and Mobile First.”

Guess what that changes for the future of SharePoint?

Not much. If anything.

Where SharePoint’s concerned, this is not a drastic transformation, folks. It isn’t Optimus Prime transforming from a semi-trailer rolling down the highway into a giant, talking robot who sounds vaguely like Casey Kasem announcing “American Top 40.” This isn’t change: it’s an affirmation of what SharePoint’s already been doing.

Understanding “Devices and Services”

Mr. Ballmer’s whole idea of “Devices and Services” was twofold. It was an attempt to challenge Apple and Google in the consumer space through direct production and selling of phones and tablets -- hardware, or “devices.” These devices would subscribe intuitively to Microsoft’s own cloud-based software, or “services.” Software is what Microsoft has always done, whereas successfully owning the manufacturing, distribution and marketing of hardware was (outside of Xbox) a relatively new venture.

Unsurprisingly, it is services -- i.e., software, the stuff in Microsoft’s DNA -- that remains the key to understanding the role SharePoint will play in the enterprise.

The same way services like Xbox Live, Xbox Music, Skype, Outlook.com and SkyDrive are positioned for the consumer, SharePoint and its brethren -- Lync, Exchange and especially Office -- were positioned to provide similar cloud-sourced services to enterprise business customers. Ideally, or so went Mr. Ballmer’s vision, these services would be consumed by Microsoft’s own devices, and short of that, more traditional partner-produced OEM devices from companies like Dell, Lenovo, HP, etc.

But something funny happened on the way to the Forum (which isn’t quite where Ballmer’s LA Clippers play, but you get the joke).

Cloud and Mobile

It’s only been in the last year or so, but the formerly monolithic Microsoft has really been catching on fast to the idea of interoperability. Things like Office for iPad, apps that run on iOS and even (gasp!) Android -- not just Windows -- have come to the fore. Meanwhile, Microsoft’s own devices have been greeted (somewhat predictably) by a lukewarm market. It’s slow going trying to displace Apple and Google with consumers.

Thus, “Cloud and Mobile.” It’s a pivot, sure, but it’s a pivot of language more than a pivot of strategy, a pivot of public relations more than a pivot of operations. Yes, a good deal of Nokia jobs were cut, but that would have happened regardless because focusing on Microsoft’s own devices was never going to become hugely profitable overnight.

Cloud-based software services that can be consumed and rendered on any mobile device -- regardless of who makes them? Well now, that makes good sense for what remains the world’s most successful software company. Redmond hasn't dropped the devices under Satya Nadella, just de-emphasized them in favor of doubling down on the services.

Which brings us back to -- doh! SharePoint! What does all of this have to do with SharePoint?

Well, think about it. All SharePoint is, at the end of the day, is a collection of (sometimes) related services. Some of those services are more loosely coupled than others (for instance, social newsfeeds don’t have much to do with records management) and that’s actually been the platform’s curse.

Not everyone wants to buy the proverbial Swiss Amy Knife if they just need a flathead screwdriver, a putty knife and a small flashlight.

Moving these services into the cloud, de-coupling them from a massive server product, and making them accessible from various mobile devices across platforms -- that’s where all of this is going.

See what I did there?

Sounds pretty good, doesn't it?

Maybe mad old Steve Ballmer was onto something after all.

Title image by @Photo (Flickr) via a CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 license