Microsoft's future No. 3: The 'streaming' scenario

After a wrenching adjustment, Microsoft migrates Windows, Office, and its other apps to a controlled cloud, keeping a lock in these familiar territories

For investors, the 2011-2015 era was pure hell when it came to Microsoft. Windows 7 and Office 2010 followed Windows Vista and Office 2007 as duds, gaining minimal adoption, mainly as preinstalled software on new computers. For several years, Microsoft had been working in its server group on desktop and application streaming technologies meant to help datacenters better manage far-flung users. By 2011, it became clear that Microsoft should provide its OS and core apps over the cloud to everyone, not just give that capability to enterprise datacenters, as application streams.

The shift to an on-demand streaming model quickly ate up 75 percent of Microsoft's US$6 billion in cash as the upfront sales of Windows and Office slumped, replaced by monthly and annual subscription charges that took years to add back to the upfront income. Investors focused on the next quarter's returns freaked out, abandoning the stock after Microsoft stood firm in its decision to make the wrenching changes in its business and delivery models.

That famous stubbornness paid off. CEO and Chairman Steve Ballmer could show in 2017 that Microsoft was earning even more as a streaming-based provider than as a packaged apps provider. That's because Microsoft realized it could sell its software steadily without disrupting its users every few years in the process with "big bang" upgrades.

In 2017, most users got Windows and Office as streaming apps, loaded into virtual machines on their computers but maintained at Microsoft. Thanks to virtualization, user apps and data occupied separate virtual layers, so they didn't cause problems for Windows, giving Microsoft huge support savings. The Office productivity apps and the Dynamics business apps were delivered the same way. Users no longer had to worry about managing these apps, could be assured that they always had the latest updates and fixes, and that their own apps wouldn't open security holes.

Plus, the Linux, Mac, and "ultra-low-cost" computer markets -- nearly 25 percent of users in 2012 -- could now embrace Windows again via this streaming method, which let Microsoft tune the OS to each computer without maintaining separate versions. Windows became part of the background of practically every computing device. Even in the mobile space, where Microsoft had been a bit player for years, the streaming strategy let it share the market equally with Apple's iPhone, and spelled the end of the many other mobile OSes such as Google Android, Java, Linux, and Palm.

These moves meant that 80 recent of profits continued to come from Microsoft's Windows and Office businesses, supplemented by the steady-as-she-goes Server and app dev divisions. But Microsoft never did figure out the Google competitive game, and quietly exited its MSN and search businesses in 2014, while also selling the Xbox group to Sony in 2012.

And its cloud-computing offerings remained in the controlled approach taken by its original Live offerings and also pushed by Oracle and SAP in their ERP "safe clouds"; minor enhancements and specialty plug-ins to the core Microsoft product lines, this time anchored to the streaming versions rather than to packaged versions.

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Galen Gruman

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