A Day in Our Life

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There’s a quickening in the air as some big players come to the table with broad initiatives. Last night at Neil Young’s Bridge concert, Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff came back from a trip to Young’s dressing room and murmured something to the effect that something amazing was about to happen. He was right: Young’s set climaxed with a stunning version of the Beatles’ A Day in the Life. Easily the best live version of arguably the pinnacle of the Beatle arc, the performance caught the audience by surprise and then repeatedly topped that with waves of power, cacophony, strange beauty, and a fearless reveling in the opportunity of the near future.

Earlier, Benioff did his usual priming of the pump about Salesforce’ Dreamforce developer conference next week in San Francisco. I’d been tipped by his PR team that something interesting was up, but Marc is famously very careful these days about letting cats out of the bag. What he would say, however, seemed coincident and at the same time resonant with the Neil Young performance: namely, that whatever will be announced is a new direction for Salesforce, something that may surprise, something that though unexpected might harness the power of the disruptive intersection of unanticipated combinations.

Perhaps I’m reading into this, but then we’ve earned the right to dream a little in this unnerving time of collapse and chaos. Tomorrow Ray Ozzie takes the stage in Los Angeles to flesh out the scope and design of Microsoft’s cloud computing platform, and I for one am looking forward to it. It may not be popular to cheer Microsoft on; as Benioff suggests, Redmond is still the big dog in the technology industry. Salesforce may align more naturally with Google, Amazon, and others, but without a strong Microsoft to promote and tilt against, you get the sense Benioff, Schmidt, Ellison, and the rest would have to invent someone else.

I think something different, that today’s competitive landscape requires a strong Microsoft, a real power in its strategy, not just the old paranoia about lock in and the Windows/Office tax. In a world of Novell and Netscape and Lotus, sure – Microsoft’s control of the desktop meant annihilation. In a world of Google, Cisco, Oracle, and a growing coalition of cloud vendors led by Amazon, there is no clear cataclysmic victory to contemplate. Apple alone makes clear the reality that there’s a market not just for momentum but excellence, and in a tortured economy, excellence will win its share.

That’s the key to what Ozzie will unveil, just how open the platform is to developer investment in its primitives. What little we know so far says a lot – Silverlight built on a three-legged stool of Windows, OS/X, and Linux, Mesh a signaling layer to abstract the new uber-platform from desktop to desktop+ Web, and tooling to orchestrate a new behavioral people-oriented search model as the economic underpinning.

The one thing Microsoft no longer has: the ability to stop the flow of other bits across the network. Sun fought for years to push Java onto the desktop. Adobe came in the back way with animation. Cisco rules at the deep packet layer. And Google and Apple control the imagination layer. So what do they, or we, have to fear from Microsoft? Start with the weakest and work out from there.

Adobe’s Flash bits gateway is seemingly the most vulnerable. Forget Silverlight – the real battleground is the mobile space, where Apple is maintaining a blockade that will be difficult to dislodge given the iPhone’s still-growing success. Android may help, but Google has more juice in its control of a mobile productivity suite via the iPhone + Android to risk Steve Jobs’ wrath. And Chrome on Android with Chrome technology baked into Safari, Firefox, and even a Mesh-enabled IE creates a bit pump that makes Adobe look like a third world country.

The religious arguments against all this will certainly have some effect, with anti-Microsoft rhetoric making it difficult for developers to stick their toes in the water. But with layoffs mounting and startup money moving toward credible revenue, Microsoft’s control of IT spending will keep developers in place as virtualization slipstreams the new platform in under cover of security and governance requirements. Microsoft in effect becomes IT’s bulwark against the ongoing encroachment of on-demand outsourcing – read Salesforce, Oracle, and likely Amazon as they move into applications.

It’s almost as though Microsoft has waited long enough for this economic meltdown to let market triage do its heavy lifting for them. But no matter how vulnerable elements of the anti-Microsoft coalition may be, individual collapses are unlikely to disrupt the march to at least two credible bit pump platforms – and whoever has unrestricted access to the Net has an equal chance of capturing behavior and therefore the efficiency of realtime relevance. With that comes a major stake in the new media restructuring, where the old three network pattern reemerges with Google, Microsoft, and Apple as the new ABC, CBS, and NBC.

It may not play out this way, but I don’t mind being called out as a Hippie for Obama or one who’s rooting for Microsoft to pull this off. I’ve been rooting for Google all along, and Salesforce and Amazon too. I wouldn’t have bet on what Neil Young and his band pulled off last night, but he and they, and we, did. I read the news today, oh boy.

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