A friend - a clean-cut, all-American, Microsoft insider - leaned across the bar and said in a low voice: "Google frightened them. A lot. They realised they had to get serious".
The threat is Google Apps and, most particularly, Google Docs and Spreadsheets, both of which are sometimes known in-toto as Google Office. It offers on-line access to these office suite stalwarts, and adds a common-sense user access control method to exploit their network availability - authors email guests a password which works with their email address to create a standard two-part log-in credential.
So it's a little hard to understand how Microsoft's addition to its phalanx of technical qualifications of a hosted applications certification quite counts as being 'serious'.
The 70-501 TS: Microsoft Windows Server 2003 Hosted Environments, Configuring and Managing exam announced last month will require deep IIS configuration skills of its MCSE students. It will also push its already well-qualified candidates to understand Microsoft Operations Framework (MOF) and automation.
But despite the emphasis on web applications, and therefore on IIS, and therefore on Windows Server, this certification is about managing the platform that Microsoft wants ASP developers to exploit to create the
next generation of OS-selling applications.That's why the 70-501 stresses advanced website configuration and management skills, but doesn't mention SQL Server - despite the fact that databases go with websites like limes go with vodka.
You see, Microsoft wants to go back to the 80s, when a thousand developers blossomed and turned DOS into the operating system that underpinned today's ubiquitous computer experience. To do that it wants ASP developers to develop on the Windows Hosting platform - which effectively means in ASP on IIS on Windows Server. Unlike DOS days though, providing a hardware platform for this code isn't as simple as forking out £2,000 for a 286 with 2MB RAM and a 10MB hard drive.
Provisioning and managing a publicly exposed hosting environment loads the installer with the configuration work, with securing it, with understanding how the customer is going to use it and what kind of user
experience they want from it. And that's before the developer gets into writing the ASP applications that will sit on top of it.
Another hint about the specialised nature of the hosting business is the absence in Microsoft's certification scheme of Exchange. That's presumably because Microsoft sees the recipients of this certification working in an industry where email server skills are already widely available - either in the hands of existing enterprise
email server staff or in those of the existing hosted Exchange industry - and deep enough that the practice of hosted email is best left to those that love it.
But there's another area this certification doesn't touch and where Microsoft hosting will have to go head to head against Google: sales and marketing.
Selling hosted applications is tough. It's harder than selling any other software model. Imagine: with all their size and complexity, and with each corporate customer having its own application and support requirements, do you really want the cost of developing, selling and supporting a workable, hosted model for them? No, if you are a local networking company, you prefer to buy in or build hardware, install an OS and the base Office applications suite, hide it all behind a firewall and live off the technical support you sell on an as-needed basis.
And who does your selling for you? If you - a service provider - who advertises to the corporate world outside of your own neighbourhood, how do you service it? From your vast nationwide fleet of white vans? I
don't think so.
Conversely, you are very vulnerable to having your territory sold into by whoever is large enough to run a sales and marketing campaign that captures your potential customers before you can.
And that's Google; not Microsoft.