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Microsoft's ambitious end-to-end computing strategy may be more than it can handle

From making Azure the "world's computer" to building category-defining, aspirational hardware to inspire an entire industry of devices, Microsoft wants it all.

Microsoft's ubiquitous computing vision is a comprehensive end-to-end strategy. The company aims to build the cloud foundation that will manage cross-platform digital experiences across billions of enterprise and consumer devices connected to its intelligent edge. And it's dedicated to providing cross-platform apps and to being a "devbox" for cross-platform app development.

Complementing this cloud and software foundation, the company's hardware goals focus on supplying first- and third-party devices as "access points" to its ever-expanding intelligent cloud and web-based products and services. No other company is as dedicated to creating an all-encompassing intelligent cloud platform, supplying a range of professional and personal productivity web-based tools like Microsoft 365, providing cross-platform apps and development platforms, and building a range of category-defining hardware.

Microsoft's approach is commendable, but is it trying to do too much?

Microsoft's head in the cloud

Microsoft's recent reorg reveals just how focused the company is on its cloud and AI strategy. In a world that's increasingly less device-centric, where users move between ecosystems and devices every day, Microsoft's working to provide the cloud platform that facilitates and powers users' digital experiences.

Azure supports cloud computing for hundreds of companies, runs apps for individual and large developers, stores data, streams apps and other content, is being positioned for game streaming, host's Microsoft's AI supercomputer, and more.

Additionally, Microsoft's cloud uses Microsoft 365, Microsoft Graph and Cortana to continue users' experiences across devices. Azure is second only to Amazon's cloud which is a testimony to the magnitude of Microsoft's cloud investments. Still, Microsoft's Achilles Heel has historically been having "too many irons in the fire" resulting in hyper-focus in some areas and negligence in others.

What Microsoft's means when it says Azure is the world's computer

IoT(eetering) on the edge

There are expected to be 30 billion IoT devices by 2020, and Microsoft has its eye on that prize. It's investing heavily in IoT through initiatives like Microsoft Azure IoT (opens in new tab) and edge computing. As more devices connect to the cloud, and processing power evolves, tasks that normally occur in the cloud move to the edge, or the connected devices closest to the user.

Still, Microsoft's edge computing efforts are enterprise- or backend-focused. This is good for business partnerships but less impactful to consumers. Millions of consumers are being hooked into Google's and Apple's ecosystems through smartphones, smart speakers and other connected consumer devices.

Microsoft's chasing "everything," but its canvasing approach may be negatively impacting its ability to address specific consumer needs.

What is edge computing and how does it impacts mobile?

On the Surface

Surface Family

Surface Family (Image credit: Microsoft)

Hardware is the user's entry point to Microsoft's cloud and services. After two failed attempts and a billion-dollar loss, Surface Pro 3 finally made Microsoft's category-defining hardware efforts successful. This success established Surface as a high-end brand for both its function, attributes and aesthetics.

Surface has grown beyond the Surface Pro 2-in-1 and now encompasses the powerful Surface Book, the digital drafting table that is Surface Studio, the collaboration-focused Surface Hub and the MacBook-challenging Surface Laptop. Microsoft's rumored "Project Andromeda" may add a digital journal Pocket PC to this family. Additionally, though not Surface-branded, Microsoft's HoloLens inspired the industry with its ambitious, untethered, wearable-PC approach to augmented reality (AR).

As first-party aspirational "access points" to Microsoft's cloud, Microsoft has proven it can do hardware. Still, the snail's pace of HoloLens's market progress, as rivals snatch AR mindshare from Microsoft's technologically superior approach, may indicate Microsoft has too much on its plate. Additionally, Lumia's demise, while Microsoft advanced its cloud infrastructure, may be further evidence that Microsoft can't handle everything it sets out to do.

More of the same?

Microsoft logo at Ignite

Microsoft logo at Ignite (Image credit: Windows Central)

Microsoft's end-to-end, ubiquitous computing strategy is ambitious and comprehensive, and it reflects a scale no other company has embarked upon. Still, the fact that Google and Apple are more focused on and successful in specific areas that Microsoft competes in, may be proof that Microsoft's approach is too broad.

Additionally, an apparent lack of marketing commitment, as demonstrated by the spotty marketing of Windows phones and other products, suggests Microsoft has the technical capacity to build an end-to-end solution but may lack the ability to drive the vision home.

Perhaps the maturing "One Microsoft" vision and a departure from a "side-project" product development approach are the company's initial steps to being better multitaskers.

Or maybe Cortana's and the Harmon Kardon's current consumer troubles are signs of more of the same. Only time will tell.

Jason L Ward is a columnist at Windows Central. He provides unique big picture analysis of the complex world of Microsoft. Jason takes the small clues and gives you an insightful big picture perspective through storytelling that you won't find *anywhere* else. Seriously, this dude thinks outside the box. Follow him on Twitter at @JLTechWord. He's doing the "write" thing!

41 Comments
  • I disagree! There are two approaches to win. First, step by step. If A is successful, than start B, then C, focusing on successful ones e.g. A and C, lower B. I believe the Microsoft approach is persistent long term. Nothing short term reactive to consumer negative feedback and need to massive layoff pressure. After severe setback from many attempts due to loss of consumer mobile presence, Microsoft must leverage from successful building blocks(cloud computing, cloud smart workspace - Microsoft 365) to struggling more customer facing blocks like Cortana centric products. Let the sound of success drawn the voice of despair coming from unsuccessful products. All products key to Microsoft 365 must keep moving forwards until they all converge with synergy as One seemlessly Connected Ubiquitous technology platform driven by AI, blockchain, edge. Momentarily setbacks are part of bigger equation to One and Only One Outcome - the race towards One ubiquitous platform.
  • One of your best articles Jason! I get what they're trying to do. But yeah I think you nailed it, they're trying to do too much new stuff and products and services that they've **already** started are left to suffer. I don't think the approach of letting Apple, Google, Amazon, and yet to be named players be the front end of the world's computer, while Microsoft is relegated to the back end is the right approach either. I think most of us applaud their efforts on Azure, IOT, and to a degree AI and Machine learning. But in order for their back end services to really succeed they need to be a player on the front end too. They don't necessarily need to be the biggest baddest player, but they need to at least be on the court. That means re-doubling their effort on things like:
    . A Surface branded foldable tablet
    . A Surface branded Phone running full Windows Core OS - Yes the NEED a phone - doesn't have to be a best seller - just something fans can purchase, devs can target, and OEMs can emulate
    . Cortana as an assistant (and also an "assistive")
    . UWP - 1st party MS authored UWP apps
    . Bing, MS Rewards, Maps, and Cortana support in major markets, especially ones that have previously showed an interest in MS products: UK, Brazil, France, Italy, Germany, Canada, etc.
    . A Surface branded smart speaker A healthy front end ecosystem targeting BOTH enterprise and consumer markets will only help them achieve their back end dreams! To use a sports analogy... you have to play BOTH offense and defense. Can't have one without the other. Same thing with front end/back end in IT.
  • Devs don’t target fans, they target large markets with room for profit growth. Haven’t you learned anything from Microsoft’s previous mobile efforts? OEMs aren’t going to emulate with a dead platform. It needs to be amazing just to get consumers to buy it, at this point. You need more than fans. That is just you being a little selfish 😉 Microsoft needs to own the entire UX for Cortana to shine. UWP is terrible on desktops, which defeats the purpose of the U in UWP. Microsoft should have kept developing and updating WPF for desktop development. They have no mature, well-maintained frameworks even for desktop development at this point. People treat Qt like the de facto framework on Desktop Windows, now. UWP has the same issue Metro had. It works, per se, but is missing so much as to render it unusable for a vast number of development scenarios. The interest in MS products was due to dirt cheap low end hardware, like Lumia 520. They can’t do much with that kind of hardware, in terms of innovating and pushing the platform forward. Surface brand means almost nothing to the average consumer. Al Microsoft has to do what what Apple did tying their services into macOS and introducing Interpol features with iOS. If they did that, Windows Mobile 10 would have been a considerably more attractive option for any PC user. Lastly, Apple and Google platforms seem a lot more cut and dry to develop for. One main development language. One set of frameworks. Etc. Microsoft has been really messy with this ever since they made the move to .net.
  • Never happen.. To little and way to late...
  • Microsoft hasn't proven consumer marketing skills in the Nadella era, and only limited skills in the Ballmer area. That being said, I think the current focus on the enterprise outward is the right one long-term. Should they make a ?4th bite at the Windows mobile market, Andromeda is the way to go, however, if they insist on Windows 10 mobile, it MUST have an Android layer to it to leverage cross-platform abilities. In order for that to happen, Google Play must be enabled. Take full advantage of Cortana/Alexa integration, as a matter of fact, be a real defacto partner of Amazon, frenemies, if you will. Unofficially decide to rule the world together. Though I use Google products on mobile, I would be considered a Microsoft and Amazon fanboy. As such, not blind to their weak spots, but wouldn't mind both of them winning.
  • Not a very good article. Microsoft is competing quite well (look at it's stock, profit, etc.) while bridging & adapting & building to a time where they can push almost everything into the cloud. Games from the cloud, windows365 from the cloud, AI, etc. on basically any device people have. Too many geeks are focused on nonissues like a speaker or windows phones and cortana. The privacy concerns of alexa, etc. is a ticking privacy timebomb and would bring nothing positive to Microsoft anyway.
  • I would like to think so, but I see no indication that people really care about privacy, and the people that do would never buy an Alexa speaker or use Facebook in the first place. Facebook useage actually increased after the recent privacy scandal. Maybe something closer to home will cause people to take notice.
  • Watch the kipman's LIVEWORX18 interview. You will get the right answers.
    In short, "code wins" that's the lesson for you.
  • I don't share the opinion that MSFT is trying to do too much.
  • "Additionally, an apparent lack of marketing commitment, as demonstrated by the spotty marketing of Windows phones and other products, suggests Microsoft has the technical capacity to build an end-to-end solution but may lack the ability to drive the vision home." Bingo!
  • As it finishes, "only time will tell".
    I feel they shouldn't scale down their ambition.
  • This one's debatable. Ambition is good, no matter how broad it may be. They have to strike the right cord at the right time whatever they bring out to the world, it must feel close to a consumer or an enterprise. MSFT knows what it does but the problem lies in deliverance. Moreover commitment is important.
  • Chase five rabbits at the same time, catch none.
  • How many rabbits Elon Musk are chasing at one time? More than all fingers of one hand
  • I count three at this time, Space X, Tesla auto, and tesla power.
  • He's also digging tunnels
  • And his results are pretty mediocre.
  • I’m impressed. The p90 sedan I drove was stellar, take the dumb human turning in dumb autopilot and then going to sleep out of the equation. Also I was in Florida to see a space x launch, and the two reusable boosters landed on the launch pad at the exact same time. Pretty impressive. Please Stan what awesomeness like that have you developed?
  • Including past success: Talulah Riley and current chasing after work :-)
  • "Microsoft has the technical capacity to build an end-to-end solution but may lack the ability to drive the vision home." Microsoft doesn't need to drive the vision "home" -- driving it to the office is their goal. THey have said this repeatedly.
  • Over and over again. And it's paying off. And Google and Apple are both trying to catch up. Seriously, this article makes no sense.
  • Catch up? Google and Apple have far more users than Microsoft and continue to add new users while Microsoft sheds them.
  • Over your head with metres to spare I see.
  • Obviously Nadella does not all all wan't it all considering how he screwed their mobile efforts and pissed on their loyal customers and fans.
  • Yawn.. seriously yawn
  • What exactly are you entitled to? You pay for the product, they give you the product. It's quid pro quo. Obviously they want to continue to keep you on board by soliciting feedback and producing products people want, but that is completely different and separate from giving you something in return for buying which is what your suggesting. No company on the planet, regardless of whether you're a fan or not, owes you anything other than that which you have paid for (read that line a few times, it'll be good for you). Honestly, I'm getting bored of people acting like jilted lovers because MS didn't pander to them specifically. They haven't done anything to you - it's just entitlement.
  • Successful leader tend to take responsibility but take charge to drive company to right direction. I was utterly depressed and frustrated when Microsoft announced to abandon W10M in mid 2016. I switched hope to WinOnARM. A leader that delivers the new category as promised = Andromeda, deserve 2nd Chance, for the difficult hard decidions he or she has to make. I move on... enjoy the every last bit of 950XL till the arrival of Andromeda.... hopefully I won one free as the first generation is not going to be cheap.
  • Microsoft should have a trade in program using W10M device for the upcoming Andromeda device to show gratitude to W10M diehards!!!! What do people think!!!!
  • See comment above on entitlement of people like you.
  • People like me keep stupid remarks out of this forum. Nothing to lose when stating wishes.
  • This will be the most effective marketing Kama, and Nathela will definitely understand that!!!!
  • I disagree, it can do both just not with the constant reshuffling and laying off staff. If anything the ceo needs to stop shuffling people around like a deck of cards and let them work as well hire new staff and provide more resources to the Cortana team, bing team and mobile hardware. They had the latter but he axed that in a short sighted stock price gain.
  • Shuffling people and laying off is bad for morale. I agree. For years, we complain Microsoft marketing suck! A company of engineers who could not sale in public in one consistent voice. However, through these engineers, we have new category Surface product, one after another. We also have excellent insider team who bridge between software/hardware engineers and the developers. We may need new ways to bridge with agility with visionary developers with communication managers and engineers. Shuffling in an effective way could re-group for internal agile to try how to combine diversity into innovation Only time will tell. However so far, stock price speak favorably of new changes
  • So Microsoft is focused on too many things, and the evidence is that it pays too little attention to its consumer strategy? Huh?
  • The problem is very different. Microsoft had a luck in around 30 years that consumer companies could not make anything even remotely competitive. So they could enjoy the free ride and posess a consumer market with enterprise technologies. Today to compete they need to completely spin off consumer divisions like they did with Xbox. However they still have a problem to comprehend that in those 30 years they just had amazing luck and that their strategy of one technology for everyone cannot work now.
  • Well said! Without experimenting by reshuffling and having layoff, there is low chance of shading off old skin that prevent consumer centric marketing and communication.
  • Does that mean they will support win 10 mobile 📱 for life 🤩 I mean IoT right??? I mean they will be standing outside the windows looking in at the party if they keep staying away from the mobile computing in one hand.....
  • I see Microsoft pushing cloud to everyone and I just do not see many consumers interested. I do see Microsoft trying to make Windows and its services a sort of Chrome OS sort of service. Where you have always connected devices that have small local storage and you push everything to the cloud. Even applications run more in the cloud as web apps. The failure of Windows mobile only put a slight damper into this Windows model as Microsoft now is porting more apps to Android and IOS and simply using those platforms. Incredibly Microsoft seems to ignore the fact nobody much cares about Edge, or cloud storage, or using Microsoft products on either IOS or Android. People want more choice then being locked into a ecosystem that really isn't very good and has not impressed many users. This is why Windows 10S has failed, and why Windows mobile failed. Microsoft is pushing stuff even though users have soundly rejected much of the infrastructure like Edge and Windows apps that would re enforce a Microsoft cloud solution.
  • Amazon has to convince shareholders the need to funnel revenue generated from AWS to money losing ventures like e.g. Kindle device, new retail store. Likewise, all the not-so-competitive Microsoft services and products like Edge, W10M, etc need time for improvement and replacement by new category product like Andromeda respectively. They need to be financed by revenue generated by Azure & Microsoft 365. The combination of Microsoft 365, more and more new Surface category, and Azure gives Microsoft the best of both 3 worlds advantage not available with AWS and Google cloud. This advantage extends the borrow time Microsoft can continue to invest in making these non-competitive activities e.g. Cortana, Edge, Bing etc. more innovative. I am confident, with clear leadership that is looking long term, with new innovation environment driven by diversity, not commonly seen in most US corporations. Microsoft will prevail in getting all these current non competitive product and service to be eventually more consumer mainstream. ACPC will soon be a good testimony to this long term strategy, credit to strong leadership. Microsoft needs time. As long as Stock price keeps going uptrend, Microsoft must persist to optimize all products and services into the visionary ubiquitous platform. Failure and self doubt is not an option!!!!
  • "Microsoft's ubiquitous computing vision is a comprehensive end-to-end strategy." Then it has already failed, because they have completely lost the front end. Personal computer sales have been declining since 2012. Adding up smartphone, tablet and PC sales, Windows software powers less than 15 percent of all the personal computing devices sold in the world each year. Having apps on iOS and Android is not a "comprehensive end-to-end strategy". It is a fall-back strategy. 10 years ago Microsoft was THE leader in consumer computing. Windows was around 93% and Internet Explorer was 80% of users. Today things are very different. Windows is 72% and dropping, and IE and Edge combined are under 10%. These are all U.S. stats. The fact is, most people no longer care about Windows and Microsoft. They may very well be using MS services, but that is due to a "comprehensive back end strategy". Yet more Surface devices - all running Windows - is not going to change this equation. Windows dropping from 93% to 15% of all the personal computing devices sold in the world each year is not due to lack of devices. It is due to lack of interest. The vast majority of the world is now "All In" with Android or iOS. Today's Personal Computers (phones and tablets) do everything that 85% of the population needs to do. For those who need to build software, create animated movies, crunch huge spreadsheets, design buildings and/or solve orbital mechanics equations, more powerful hardware is available (desktop PCs/workstations). Just as cars outsell 18 wheel trucks, phones and tablets naturally outsell desktop PCs. Sure, you CAN take the 18 wheel truck to the grocery store. You CAN use a desktop PC to watch Netflix on the way to the grocery store. But neither the 18 wheel truck nor the desktop PC is the most convenient solution for either use case.
  • For a while now, I've felt like it's a "tale of two Microsofts". If you look at them with the light refracting one way, things look absolutely amazing. And yet, if you tilt the lens to bend the light another way, you get a glimpse of a different narrative that portrays a situation on the brink of disaster. I have previously attributed that to them caring way more for the enterprise than for the consumer. And there may be some truth to that in that I think it's hard to argue that when push comes to shove, enterprise, cloud, and AI are their focus, and not us. But if you step back, you realize they actually haven't abandoned the consumer. XBox is being taken seriously, most (not all) of the surface devices are as much - if not more - "consumer devices" than "enterprise devices", and so on. So the simple explanation that MS has given up on consumer, or doesn't really care about consumer perhaps fails to make sense of the data. Jason, I think you've nailed it. I think their vision is so big and impressive that they simply can't manage all of it. I think this explanation makes way better sense of all the moving pieces than simply writing them off as having written us off - or some narrative that this was actually their master design all along, and the consumer is the glorious crown that goes on last. The question is how do they fix it? The paradox is that they seem so invested in the future, "the next bend in the road" [paraphrased] as Nadela said - that they may have only a very paltry future in the consumer space to arrive at when they get there. They are right to aggressively pursue that next epoch, and get there ahead of everyone else. They are. But what about those of us on the ground, who love, but are becoming increasingly disillusioned, and feeling increasingly abandoned in the hear and now, who watch with a mix of horror, fury, agony, depression, fatalism, and perhaps even a perverse, incredibly ironic sense of amusement at the whole thing as quality product, service, and even product line go down one after the other? Some of the die-hards will stick around until the very last light switch is turned off, and I will certainly not be among the earliest of departers myself. But what is there for us besides a now de-emphasized Windows 10, OneDrive, Microsoft 365, and XBox? And which of those might be next to fall? I've already embraced the Google Pixel line in the crater where Microsoft's mobile ambitions lie smoldering. I only just had time to totally fall in love with Groove on Android before it was announced to shut down, and didn't even have the opportunity to fall in love with Groove Music Pass. And what of Cortana? I don't think we're gonna lose Windows anytime in the foreseeable future, nor do I see XBox on its way out - and certainly not Office. But what else is left for us? Microsoft has -BY FAR- the best vision in the tech industry. But it has arguably the least by just as radical a margin to offer us day to day folk. It's a catch 22. The position they find themselves in necessitates that they do not let up on the gas in their pursuit of getting to the future first. And yet, that pursuit leaves us all behind, which in turn may only serve to have them arrive at that future to find that we've all left them behind too. I see no way out of this except for to find a way to increase their bandwidth so that they can pursue their full vision, and become that absolutely amazing "One Microsoft" that they so tantalized us with back in 2014/15. But how do we get there? It's a tale of two Microsofts.