Horace Greeley once famously said, "Go west, young man" with the idea that prosperity and a better life would be found there. With that in mind, I followed the compass north to the 2012 Microsoft Worldwide Partner Conference this past July. Microsoft led more than 16,000 partners from over 150 countries to the banks of Lake Ontario to share their vision for the upcoming fiscal year that could well change the competitive landscape much as they did back in 1995. The weeks-earlier announcement of the availability of Windows 8 preview release accelerated speculation about the direction of Microsoft's vision, and the buzz was palpable in the tech community and media.
DAY 1 - Welcome to Canada!
After arriving the day before, and successfully negotiating the serpentine queues of Pearson Airport's customs line, I was rested and ready for CEO Steve Ballmer's annual keynote. Treated to a blazing performance by Cirque D'Soleil and an introduction by Partner Network VP Jon Roskill, Ballmer ascended to the circular platform with Forbes staff writer Rich Karlgaard in tow. In a departure from previous years where the charismatic CEO addressed the partners solo, this incarnation of opening day keynote featured a more laid back Ballmer answering questions in an informal interview setting. Even with the more subtle approach, the message was clear. Microsoft is in it to win it and expects the next year to be a banner year for product launches, competitive advantages, and all-around industry buzz. Coming into WPC 2012, I was fully aware of the Windows 8 preview release availability, but was surprised by the announcement that was Windows 8 was within weeks of being released to manufacture and with an expected sell date in late October.
Excitement around Windows 8 was not just about the impending release, but of the complete rethinking of the operating system as a whole. Ballmer pointed to the consistent experience across all devices; the PC, Windows Phone 8, and the newly announced Microsoft Surface tablet.
Whether the device of choice utilizes touch or a traditional keyboard/mouse input, Windows 8 will perform the same across all devices. Microsoft VP Tami Reller was masterful demonstrating Windows 8 on a plethora of new hardware devices including some cool "convertibles"; a laptop with a removable screen that can then function as a tablet. There were a lot of "oohs" and "aahs" at that! Ballmer then had one last announcement; the acquisition of Performance Pixel, a major player in large-screen touch displays. Started in 2006, Performance Pixel cemented their position in the marketplace by using their displays to cover the 2008 Presidential election with their most visible customer, CNN. Performance Pixel's Chief Technology Officer Jeff Han hit the stage and demonstrated the power of an 80 inch wall-sized display flipping between map images and Windows 8 applications without missing a beat. So the best of day one was due largely to all of these cool new toys.
DAY 2 - Smart Phone Samba
Tuesday's keynote sessions were followed closely as Toronto became ground zero for the latest in smartphone news from around the world. Many flocking to the Air Canada Center were looking forward to the updates on the Windows Phone 8 arrival date and to see just how well the new operating system would mesh with the previously announced Windows 8. With competitors touting their own advantages, there were two ways Microsoft could have gone; ceding the smartphone and tablet marketplace to the competition, or outpacing their competition in a single bound. The aggressive stance of diving in to compete 100% is somewhat of a philosophical shift for Microsoft, but a welcome one indeed.
No one was disappointed as the demonstrations showed that this latest and most anticipated phone OS would bring the promise of tight integration with what companies already know. The most memorable demonstration came from COO Kevin Turner who played a YouTube video showing the iPhone 5 being asked to find the best smartphone available on today's marketplace. The iPhone concierge app, Siri, calmly asked the questioner to wait as it searched. A few moments later, the iPhone popped up a link to an article that showed the Windows Phone as the best option. Of course, this was met by raucous laughter and applause! One important point made by a Windows Phone product specialist was that Verizon Wireless was completely on board with the new Windows Phone platform, and would have a full line available during the official release in October. For those organizations who have had a network in place on Verizon would not have to switch to AT&T or T-Mobile to take advantage of the Windows Phone 8 uprising.
About 70 miles west in Waterloo, Research in Motion (RIM) was answering sharp questions about their future. Ironically, BlackBerry was the pioneer in the smartphone world and was synonymous with the phrase "CrackBerry" as it was THE choice for business people wanting to stay connected. With their BlackBerry 10 revision delayed yet again, there were many pundits wondering if RIM would even survive. So it seemed as though a tectonic shift in the smartphone ecosystem would work in favor of Windows Phone 8. Especially when you consider the ease with which the Windows Phone devices can be connected to an already Windows-centric corporate network.
While there was other significant news around Windows Server 2012, much of that was of impact for the enterprise space. Windows Phone 8 set the tone for the latest wave of excitement for the SMB community.
DAY 3 - SMB for Me
The third and fourth days were more SMB focused with the biggest discussion around the Microsoft cloud option, Office 365. Many SMB partners were wondering what would be next for this second generation offering, the re-launched Business Productivity Online Suite (BPOS) which was received with tepid interest a few years ago. It became clear that the big target remains Google Apps, and the presenters all showed numerous reasons why Office 365 is superior. The fidelity of applications, the lack of annoying advertisements, and the paucity of customer support were just a few of the reasons that were cited by companies that had tried Google Apps. Google's "free" claim was proven to be fool's gold as the costs for customizations and other hidden costs were revealed after the fact. When stacked side-by-side with Office 365, Google Apps was inferior with far less in the way of functionality and without a good answer to Lync and SharePoint.
It was also good news to see some price-point and billing changes that would allow partners to bill directly and keep from having to tell customers they would get two bills; one for services from the partner and one for software from Microsoft. With lower prices it's almost a no-brainer for the micro-SMB to embrace Office 365. It truly allows SMB organizations to run enterprise-class technologies for a fraction of the cost.