Having been on a plane earlier, I’ve been trying to catch up on Microsoft’s announcements today. (The best rundown on the event I’ve seen is Tim O’Reilly’s; the best analysis is Dana Gardner’s.) Much is still fuzzy, particularly the precise tiered-pricing model for Office Live (as opposed to Office Dead, I guess) – and how much is covered by ads alone. But in general it looks like a good, smart move by Microsoft, surprisingly aggressive in its breadth without being excessively risky.
The company’s challenge in moving to the software-as-a-service era has always been more about timing than technology: Shift too late, and you risk losing the market; shift too early, and you leave lots of traditional license profit on the table. With its Live plan, it seems to have struck a balance that, on paper, at least, looks smart. As Gardner writes: “By targeting small businesses with Windows- and Office-like services and juxtaposing them to contextual advertising, Microsoft diversifies its business model closer to what Google and what other software-as-a-service vendors do, but does not really dent its historic money making machines: the Windows operating system and Office suite of personal productivity applications. At least not for some time.” And by integrating the utility version of Office with the on-premise version (it remains to be seen how that will work), it has the potential to put a tough barrier in Google’s path into the business market.
Now, we’ll see how well Microsoft can actually execute the plan. Can it make its battleship maneuver like Google’s cigarette boat?
One final note: There’s a real rush right now to give software away and make money from advertising. The strategy is built on aggressive projections for on-line ad revenues as far as the eye can see. What nobody’s talking about is the fact that advertising is a very cyclical business. If you’re publishing a newspaper or magazine, you have considerable variable costs (paper, editorial content) that you can trim when there’s weakness in the ad market. With software-as-a-service, you don’t have that flexibility in the cost structure of your business. (Your customers aren’t going to use your software less because there’s an ad recession going on.) At some point, and it will probably be sooner than the current rosy forecasts suggest, the on-line ad market will take a dip. Then things will get very interesting very fast.