Can Microsoft change its spots?

Since Satya Nadella took over as CEO of Microsoft, the company has become steadily more open and cross-platform

Over the last few months since Satya Nadella took over as CEO of Microsoft, the company has becoming steadily more open and cross-platform.

First, there was Office 365 for iPad and Android, then Microsoft offered InTune, for device management across Windows, Windows Phone, iOS and Android.

Earlier in November 2014, Microsoft announced integration between Office 365 and DropBox.

Now Microsoft has released .Net to the open source community, a move that could establish .Net as a cross-platform tool on Windows, MacOS and Linux. At the same time, it is offering .Net Core common language runtime (CLR) for Windows, Mac and Linux.

There is also a free version of Visual Studio Professional for open-source developers. This is called Visual Studio Community.

The .Net Core stack, runtime and framework libraries will all be available through GitHub.

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Why give away .Net?

Ovum principal analyst Richard Edwards said making .Net open source is part of a wider strategy in the Microsoft leadership team to prepare for the internet of things (IoT).

The IoT will rely on back-end, cloud-based services. The current Microsoft software licensing model means organisations looking at building IoT devices and services will need to pay Windows client access licences for every IoT device that connects to a Windows back end, which is why Linux has proved so popular.

Making .Net open source will also encourage some organisations and programmers to develop .Net-based back ends for applications. Given the .Net is a stepping stone into the Azure cloud, Microsoft clearly has a route by which open source .Net-based applications can be hosted on its cloud platform.

Taking on Java

One Computer Weekly reader noted: "As the technology moves away from Microsoft Windows to open-source technology, the .Net framework is experiencing a year-over-year decline in its adoption. One way to preserve investment is to get Linux, Mac and any other (Android, BSD, etc) to be able to create .Net applications."

Arguably, Microsoft is playing catch-up with its rival Oracle, which owns Java. Java’s philosophy of write-once, run-anywhere has allowed Oracle to support everything from smart TVs to smartcards and smartphones.

Making .Net open source will boost Microsoft’s support for iOS and Android devices, by extending this fundamental Microsoft developer platform onto these devices.

Announcing the changes in .Net, S. Somasegar, corporate vice-president of the developer division at Microsoft, wrote in a blog post: "No matter whether you are a startup, a student, a hobbyist, an open-source developer or a commercial developer, and no matter the platform you are targeting or the app you are creating, Visual Studio, Visual Studio Online, .Net and Azure will enable you to build for the breadth of today’s mobile, desktop, web and cloud platforms."

In effect, Microsoft is offering coders to write their mobile apps once using. Net, and run it anywhere, just like Java.

While products such as Office 365 and InTune already support the iPhone, iPad and Android devices, .Net expands Microsoft’s support out to its ecosystem of .Net developers.

According to IDC’s Q2 2014 market share data, Windows Phone dropped 9% compared to 2013, while Android grew 85% and iOS grew 12%. So Microsoft is a long way behind its nearest rivals. Rather than focus 100% on shrinking this massive gap in market share, Microsoft, under Nadella's leadership, is embracing iOS and Android.

When we talk about cloud first and mobile first, we are not talking about the mobile device, but the mobility of the user 

 Microsoft CEO, Satya Nadella 

Unlike his predecessor, Nadella does not appear to be positioning Microsoft as the third mobile platform. The game has changed.

Speaking at the Future Decoded event in London, he said: "When we talk about cloud first and mobile first, we are not talking about the mobile device, but the mobility of the user." In other words, Nadella sees a seamless software experience as his number one priority, rather than a fully integrated Windows software stack. This is post-Windows IT. To remain relevant and to support Nadella’s vision of user mobility, Microsoft needs to enable its software on every major operating system (OS) platform. Making. Net open-source is consistent with this strategy.

To date, Nadella has given users the ability to run Microsoft software across Windows, Android and iOS. Key to supporting user mobility is to expand the number of mobile-first and cloud-first Microsoft applications. So, by putting .Net into the open-source community, Microsoft is counting on developers using little bits of this core MS technology in the apps they create that run on iOS Android. And if they use .Net, Microsoft is betting developers will be lured onto Azure as the natural choice to host these apps.

Office everywhere

When Windows was the dominant OS platform, Office was the big money-maker for Microsoft. In Nadella’s vision of mobile-first and cloud-first, the one constant has been Office, albeit in the Office 365 cloud variety. There has been an inferior Mac version for years, but now Office is truly cross-platform and iPad and Android users are getting the latest functionality, such as the recent integration with DropBox, way before it becomes available on Windows. A PR stunt perhaps? Maybe.

At the Gartner Symposium in Barcelona, Gartner analyst Alexa Bona said: "Very few technology companies can reinvent themselves." IBM and Apple have, but the minicomputer giants have all but disappeared. Microsoft’s heyday came about after the demise of the minis, now its dominance has been obliterated in the post-Windows era, where Apple and Google OSs dominate.

Nevertheless, under Nadella’s leadership, Microsoft is moving beyond Windows and the Microsoft systems platform. Office 365 and Azure represent the two-pronged approach with which the software giant will deliver Nadella’s cloud-first and mobile-first strategy. By making .Net open-source and giving away Visual Studio, Microsoft has expanded this strategy to the whole of its software developer ecosystem.

The question of whether a leopard, or in this case Microsoft, can indeed change its spots, remains to be seen. Ovum principal analyst Michael Azoff said: "Open cross-platform is not what one associates with Microsoft, but there is a realism about the company today. Making .Net open source is another manifestation of Nadella's change in direction for Microsoft."

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