How would you like to be the head of Microsoft? Yesterday, you were the emperor of the desktop. Riding Moore’s Law, microprocessors doubling their power every 18 months, microcomputers became personal and made IBM’s mainframes passé. Microsoft Office, Windows on the desktop, Windows servers running Exchange became the industry standards. The resulting dominant position (some say monopoly) gave Microsoft unheard of pricing power and generated billions for shareholders, founders and employees. But, today, we have Cloud Computing. It is often characterized as all applications run on servers in the Cloud, the PC’s browser is merely the interface. Is this a pendulum swing back to the old mainframe and dumb terminals days? No. Is it the passing of Marc Andreesen’s 1996 prophecy: The browser is the operating system? We’re getting closer.

First step: delivering former desktop applications from a server. This is what pioneered with the leading CRM application. Initially a struggle, is now a brilliant success with many imitators. The genre is known as Software as a Service, Saas.

Second step: Google’s server farms. Combining technical brilliance, foresight and agile opportunism, Google now runs the largest sever farm on the planet, more than one million servers on three continents. Building on this infrastructure, on its engineers and on its brand, Google enters the Saas business buying applications such as Writely. We now have Google Docs. Essentially, this is Microsoft Office delivered from the cloud. Who cares which PC and which OS you run, all you need if Firefox (Linux, Mac or Windows) and a Net connection. I’m writing this column on Google Docs in Palo Alto, for my boss Mr. Filloux editing it in Paris.

Third step: working off-line. It’s nice to store data and run applications in the Cloud but what do you do when you’re on a plane? Google (and others) have thought about it and we see an off-line version of applications coming to us. Edit on-line, go off-line, write some more and re-sync with the server when you reconnect. The idea isn’t exactly new, a good sign. Consider Outlook/Entourage and Exchange in Cache Mode: you “own” a local version of the server data on your machine. You answer mail, edit your calendar locally. Then, you send/receive mail, re-sync you calendar when you reconnect.

Fourth step: offering the server farm to application developers. Again, not the newest of ideas: Amazon has been offering very good server services, AWS, Amazon Web Services. Small start-ups delight in using AWS to host their applications. Now, building again on its infrastructure, engineers and brand, Google tells entrepreneurs: Come and build your cloud on our cloud. You see the idea: getting it both ways, autonomy when off-line, full power, world reach when connected. I’m leaving many other examples and companies aside to go back to Microsoft. Today, Microsoft gets more than $300 (at retail) for a copy of Microsoft Office. That copy costs a few dollars to make. That’s pricing power. But what I called The Divine Earnings Stream is doomed to run dry.

Microsoft cannot and doesn’t ignore the threat but what can it do? In theory, they should do what Google does, deliver Office in Saas mode, cached locally and run form a server farm. In practice, they’re caught in three concentric prisons. First: servers. Windows Server works reasonably well for enterprise applications. But using it for a million servers farm is out of the question. Second: the Office code base. Big and heavy. Can it be adapted to an on-line/off-line Saas delivery model? Third: Wall Street. Free is a four-letter for Microsoft shareholders. How do you earnings trouble when converting from $300 per copy to a free or freemium Saas Office? This is what Microsoft is timidly testing with Albany. Not a Saas version yet, but Office by rental subscription. In the meantime, and Google join forces, Google Apps now available with the leading CRM application. As for the question at the beginning: Bill Gates answered it by passing the baton to Steve Ballmer. –JLG

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