Can Ballmer and Microsoft catch Apple and Android?

Steve Ballmer made his case before the Northern Virginia Technology Council on April 19, but is Microsoft just playing the "Me too" card?

I didn’t expect Steve Ballmer to break news when he spoke at the Northern Virginia Technology Council’s Tech Titan’s breakfast Thursday morning.

And he didn’t. Instead he gave a speech that was part a vision of technologies future – big data and the cloud – and part Microsoft sales pitch – the coming release of Windows 8.

As part of his talk he had Ryan Asdourian, a Microsoft senior product manager, give a demo of Windows 8 and how it works on a smart phone, tablet and PC. The cloud and apps are the backbone of the new operating system.

It looked good and seemed like it should be intuitive to use. Your various devices would work together. Asdourian took a photo of the audience and a short time later it appeared on his notebook computer; because all of his devices are connected to the cloud and photos are automatically shared among your devices.

It was nice, but as Ballmer spoke about things such as how machine learning is the next big thing in big data and how data center technologies are rapidly advancing, I couldn’t help but think that Apple and Android have won the war on how we interact with data and computing.

Ballmer acknowledged that Microsoft is playing catch up and is unveiling its version of computing that has been so rapidly adopted by Android and Apple users over the last few years.

With Windows 8 and the Microsoft Store --- an online market for users to buy and download software and apps – Microsoft is “reimagining computing.” It is the biggest change at Microsoft since the company’s earliest days when its goal was to put a PC on every desk, Ballmer said.

The company is entering a very competitive market, he said.

It’ll be fun to watch that competition. Ballmer put in a few subtle digs at Apple when he made a crack about the ease-of-use of his Microsoft phone and its tiles versus a phone with a “sea of icons.” He also praised the battery life on Microsoft-based devices.

There also was mention that Microsoft has a retail store now.

So as all of this piled up in my head – the Microsoft retail store, the online store, the cloud connectivity between devices, the reliance on apps – I couldn’t help but think that there is a bit of “Me too” going on at Microsoft.

But I’m not accusing them of not being innovative or original. The stories of Apple usurping other people’s ideas and running with them are legion; after all, the iPad was not the first tablet computer.

It is perfectly fine to steal ideas. The challenge, though, for Microsoft, is to make its products run better, easier and cheaper, than the established players.

He also touched on a true area of strength for Microsoft and that is its dominance in the enterprise and in productivity tools.

For the most part, smart phones and tablets are great for consuming information, but not so useful as tools for producing it.

I think bringing those two uses of computing together on a single platform is where Microsoft has its greatest opportunity.

Ballmer said he no longer has any analogue devices in his office, that is, no more paper and pens. He doesn’t even have a printer anymore. Instead he has a huge slate computer – I think he said 80 inches – with a stylus.

He can take notes, crunch numbers, communicate with colleagues and partners and run the biggest software company in the world.

I’m sure he can then access any of that information from his mobile devices wherever he is.

That is the vision of computing that Microsoft is trying to create. But so are Apple and Android.

The competition will be fierce and nasty between them, but we, the users, should benefit from it.