Microsoft’s Most Valuable Asset

Windows 8 was just released and so was the Surface tablet.  While this is a milestone for folks in Redmond, I couldn’t care less.  In fact, many engineers and programmers I have spoken to feel the same.  In many cases, people I work with are JUST NOW upgrading their virtual machines to Windows 7.  Notice I said virtual machines.  In fact, so many people I work with don’t use Windows as their host OS.  They just use it as a guest.  More and more people have tried Mac or Linux as the host.  But that is a side topic.  Let me get back to the main point here.

Microsoft is under assault from the marketplace.  Fewer new Windows PCs are popping up every 2 years since the Apple juggernaut started gaining momentum and people started getting work done  on operating systems that were non-Windows.  From a capitalism perspective, the shift in power is probably healthy.  Back in 2001, Microsoft had such a dominant position in the computing sphere they were under constant anti-trust investigations and derision by the blogosphere.  Today, the landscape is changing dramatically with tablets, and cloud computing.  As people’s exposure to apps that were not from a Windows platform happend more, they became more comfortable with alternative computing tools.  This change in mindset has predominantly been in the home market, but has trickled gradually into the corporate market also.

While I could talk about the operating system and tablet market ad nauseum, this was not the topic on top of my mind.  I have already moved beyond operating systems, compute hardware, and apps as an analysis of the impact Microsoft makes on my life.  What I want to point out what I think is perhaps the single most valuable thing Microsoft owns and sells today.  Nope, it is not Exchange server (which is actually a decent full-featured mail server platform).  Nope it is not Office.  The single most valuable product that Microsoft owns is Active Directory.  Yes, I said it Active Directory.

Why?  Because after the fail of Novell, the only relevant, full featured alternative for the corporate marketplace is AD.  When Novell was king, NDS was everywhere.  In fact, I spent much of my career connecting devices to an NDS X500 directory.  But Novell pissed so many people off with that nasty Novell client that they started to lose market share to the then burgeoning growth of Windows NT.  Eventually, Microsoft had to compete and release Active Directory.  While AD has never been as fully featured as NDS was, it was good enough.  Good enough that most IT departments said they did not want the pain of managing 2 Directory logins and trees.  So, they ditched NDS and embraced AD.

In fact, today, one of the main reasons corporate IT still predominantly have Windows clients and some installed base of Windows servers is because they like and need Active Directory to maintain thousands of users and groups.  To date, I have not been satisfied that there is a credible alternative to AD for user account management.  I have tried and use Sun LDAP, which is now Oracle LDAP.  I am not really impressed with that product and Oracle’s stewardship of great Sun open source initiatives is lackluster at best.  The fact is, Microsoft Active Directory is the glue that holds many IT departments together.

I make this point to hopefully draw Microsoft’s attention to an opportunity for them to keep a hold to this market and improve their standing in the community, or to excite some eager startup.  Microsoft needs to make it super easy to connect Linux and Unix machines to AD with FULL features.  I say that Windows Services for UNIX is not enough.  Further, I think Microsoft should license AD to work on Linux servers with full features.  They should do this with all the gusto of a market that they see as strategic.  They are wasting incredible amounts of money on IE advertising, Bing and other online properties and could have fully funded all the development costs to do this work.  So, Microsoft:  Wake up and secure this market before someone makes a better, open-source AD and then there is one less reason to keep you in the data center.