(Note: After an award-winning career in the media business covering the tech industry, Bob Evans was VP of Strategic Communications at SAP in 2011, and Chief Communications Officer at Oracle from 2012 to 2016. He now runs his own firm, Evans Strategic Communications LLC.)
CLOUD WARS — Microsoft's sweeping transformations of its sales and engineering organizations and its unique focus on intelligent cloud plus intelligent edge has spurred some of its largest enterprise customers to spend “an order of magnitude more with us year over year than they ever had before,” a top Microsoft executive recently told investors.
Judson Althoff, executive vice president of Microsoft's worldwide commercial business, also told investors that the wave of transformative new technologies now hitting the mainstream—AI, IoT, digital business models and more—will boost the size of the IT market by $2 trillion (yes, $2 trillion with a “t”) over the next decade to about $4.5 trillion overall.
And Microsoft's opportunity to take the lion's share of that spectacular expansion is driven by three key factors, Althoff said:
- Microsoft's core business model, which unlike Amazon's precludes Microsoft from competing with its customers;
- the “trust factor” that ranges across not only an increasingly open technology strategy but also business policies stating that the data created by business customers is the property of those business customers, and not of Microsoft; and
- Microsoft's end-to-end creation of hybrid technologies that allow customers to move seamlessly from the cloud to on-premises technology.
” When we look at what our opportunity is, though, not only do we see a huge opportunity to capture more of the $2.5 trillion IT spend, we actually see the IT spend dramatically increasing overall—so what was classically thought of as the IT opportunity for companies like Microsoft is in our view going to double over the next 10 years,” Althoff said at the Citi Global Technology Conference earlier this month. (Full transcript is here.)
That doubling is the result of companies racing to become full-fledged digital businesses requiring IT to become ubiquitous across organizations and indispensable to companies' ability to compete, to grow, and to create new value for customers.
“So much of what we do with customers in the cloud today and at the edge is about really transforming their business—and so classically what would have been thought of as COGS, not related to IT, is digitizing.
“And so when we look at an opportunity for a large retailer, grocer, in their stores to help them keep food fresh, it's not about the servers we might sell them in the back of the office, or the PCs that we might sell them in the front of the office,” Althoff said.
“It's everything from the sensor to the sensor fabrics to the large data stores to the AI capabilities that help them reason over supply-chain management for fresher foods.”
As a result, Microsoft sees the overall size of the IT market, which Gartner pegs at about $2.5 trillion, expanding by an additional $2 trillion on the strength of the surging demand for digital transformation.
And here Althoff, noting that “there's good objective evidence of that,” made the astonishing comment cited in part in the opening sentence about the growth Microsoft is experience from its largest global customers: “We have some of our largest enterprise customers now spending an order of magnitude more with us year over year than they ever have before.”
Althoff also delivered a devastating critique of the pure-infrastructure side of cloud computing, a segment that some research firms and many in the media continue to portray–quite falsely–as the “real” cloud market. Asked by a conference attendee about whether Azure is in “a commodity business with a race-to-zero pricing,” Althoff gave this reply:
“There are aspects of the cloud-platform market that will be a commodity business and will be a race to zero. If you look at strictly infrastructure as a service and storage, compute and storage, yeah, that will be a chase to the bottom and may the best price win.
“There are a couple of things, though, that even in that realm I think will lead to an advantage for us. I think that pure R&D on things that we do in the compute realm–from quantum computing to cryogenic computing, the data centers that we're putting on the ocean floor–those will actually give us a competitive advantage in term of the COGS related to even just pure infrastructure and storage.
“So I actually feel pretty good about even the worst part of the business. The parts for us, though, that I think will lead to long-term differentiation and, again, to pricing power in the market are the platform services that we're offering.”
So let's see why Althoff believes each of those 3 critical factors behind Microsoft's ascendancy—its business model, its trust factor, and its hybrid-technology strategy—are keeping Microsoft ahead of hard-charging Amazon and far ahead of Google in the cloud.
The Business Model
- Compensating Salespeople: “We took a big leap: we don't pay people anymore on what we sell. In fact, less than 20 percent of the compensation plan for any of our people is tied to what they might sell to a customer. We pay our people on what our customers use and the value they get out of our solutions.”
- Helping Customers Create New Revenue Streams: “We have some traditional commercial customers that have become what we call digital partners. The best example of this is the work we do with Boeing. Microsoft has been selling technology to Boeing for decades, but the work we've done over the recent years is we've actually taken their digital aviation assets, put them on our Azure platform, and we co-sell with them to other airlines around the world. This drives huge top-line revenue for them and helps them be much more nimble in their implementation, and then our people are actually engaged with them at the face of the customer to deal with things like the cloud architecture, data privacy, security, and sovereignty. And it works very, very well with us.”
- AI-Driven Inside-Sales Team: “We had created what I call a new digital selling force and think of this as sort of the modern era inside sales or call center teams. We have used our own technology, we drink our own wine, if you will, and have implemented an AI reasoning capability that links everything we do in marketing for all of our anonymous interactions with customers. And that then feeds demand response into our inside sales teams and then they actually come to work every day and they've got a queue of calls, 100 different calls they could make. The reasoning, the cognitive services basically tell them which three calls they should make first, what to say when they're on the phone with the customer, which specialist to pull into the deal or which partner to help with the opportunity, and overall it's created a far more efficient way at reaching tens of thousands of customers around the world at scale.”
The Trust Factor
- Customers Are Sole Owners Of Their Data, Their IP. “We spend a lot of time investing in being super-clear with our customers that their data is their data—it's not our data. Their IP is their IP—it's not our IP. And in addition, even our patent portfolio is something we extend to our customers as they're looking to digitize their businesses. And that's been huge in terms of building that enterprise trust and credibility because as the biggest of enterprises move to the cloud, the highly regulated markets still haven't had huge adoption yet. That's critically important.”
- Amazon: ‘Your Margin Is My Opportunity.' “The reality of the situation is if you look at the two other big competitors in this space, Amazon is, frankly, attacking a lot of industries right now. And they're pretty bold and open about it. I mean Jeff [Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos] will say, ‘Look, your margin is my opportunity.' And there's evidence of that, huge evidence of that in retail, of course, but also financial services and healthcare. And so, I think our enterprise customers come to us and say, ‘Hey, look, long live the cloud. We're not interested in going to the cloud with somebody who is interested in taking our business. Microsoft, you've known our business for decades.' So there's that enterprise trust factor.”
- Google: Search And Ads As Taxes On E-Commerce. “I think Google is seen as actually less of a direct attack, but a huge tax burden if you will. If you think about the single greatest tax on any electronic commerce or digital interaction, it's search, it's ads. And so, yes, you can seek out Google as a platform provider, but the reality is that's going to actually turn into a reverse burden on your business.”
The Hybrid-Technology Strategy.
- ‘We've Been Doing Hybrid Since Before Hybrid Was Cool.' It comes down to the flexibility of our offering. I talked about the edge in the cloud. We've been doing hybrid since before hybrid was cool. And the platform we enable is completely heterogeneous, whether you want to use Microsoft assets or open-source assets, you want to do it on-prem, you want to do it on the cloud. We offer a common platform for developers to build product from left to right. The security fabric that's a part of that as well enables customers to very quickly latch onto whatever local security, data privacy, sovereignty and regulatory concerns there might be in the markets that they operate in, so the platform itself, the hybrid capabilities within it, is a huge differentiator.”
- Azure Stack Has Been Huge Success. “We're super-pleased with Azure Stack right now—we're taking orders at the threshold of our ability to deliver at this point. So, we're very pleased with that. We're also pleased with where we're going with Azure Sphere. It hits the notion of the edge to the cloud, especially with the onset of 5G coming. I mean you can really basically put compute everywhere, from the furthest edge, through to midpoints in aggregate, all the way to the public cloud. And the deep investments we've made in this space having a common framework for identity management, a common data platform, a common security model, a common development model. I mean even Google uses VS code inside of their environment, because our tools are so rich in supporting DevOps scenarios. The platform itself has been built from the ground up with hybrid in mind. And we think that that's really going to take off, again, especially with 5G.”
For Microsoft and Althoff, the best part of the story is that we're only in the opening chapters.
“About 85 percent of our enterprise customers are already using one or more of our cloud services—so we've had great growth in that regard,” he told the audience, noting that for the quarter ended June 30, Microsoft posted commercial-cloud revenue of $6.9 billion.
“But the bullish side of it is that that still only represents about 25 percent of our overall business—a little less than that, in fact. So, the upside in terms of continuing to work with our own enterprise customer base and drive more growth even within that realm is huge.”