Microsoft's Mountain man sees Jobsian past in .NET

Like NeXTSTEP. But 'open'

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.NET is the NeXTSTEP

For Lewin, .NET represented an open- and standards-based way to achieve what he and fellow NeXT co-founder Jobs had tried to realize using closed and proprietary object-oriented tooling framework NeXTSTEP, which became OpenStep. .NET meant a way to change the web and the way systems interoperate and scale online, Lewin believed.

Lewin says he told Ballmer that if he was serious about the commitment to XML, the .NET Framework and XML-based standards, then "working with startups and the venture community would be fascinating, and an area where I could make a difference for the community."

Lewin is now corporate vice president for strategic and emerging business development, working with startups, venture capitalists, and industry partners to bring them to Windows and .NET.

His job is to match prospective partners and startups to products like Windows or SharePoint and find ways to support startups. Microsoft's BizSpark startup program boasts 30,000 members after just over two years, while those benefiting from Microsoft's help in the recent past have included Rupert Murdoch's social network MySpace when it adopted SQL Server 2005 to scale its struggling service of 130 million monthly users with their 1Pb of raw data.

Lewin finds ways to work with startups and partners rather than investing through the traditional VC model, as companies like Intel have. This can help ensure they become life-long users of Microsoft, while creating even more users via their own services.

So, how have things changed for Microsoft and for the Valley during Lewin's tenure since he joined the company? Some of Microsoft's big rivals have simply ceased to be a factor - Netscape, Sun, and Borland, to name three.

Meanwhile, Apple has become re-invigorated, partly with the help of a cash infusion from Microsoft in the late 1990s. Google has emerged as a centrifugal force for the web, society, and development. Oracle has consolidated a swath of the software sector. And programming has moved off clients and gone mobile and online using new, non-Microsoft platforms and runtimes like Linux, AJAX, JavaScript, PHP, MySQL, and Ruby.

The start ups have changed too. In 2001, the focus was enterprise software as customers tried to digest and integrate the systems they'd consumed in the run up to Y2K, according to Lewin. Now, the trend is around identity-based services and mobile and what he calls "discovery" - finding people, services, and information online or in systems.

With the rise of Google, Apple iPhones, and app stores - and with a plethora of open-source programming and runtime platforms - the chatter around the Valley campfire during this time has increasingly been that Microsoft - and its software - are no longer "relevant" to start ups.

As far as Lewin's concerned, though, it's business as usual. The battle for start-ups' hearts and minds - the race to get them before they go to your rivals' platforms - hasn't changed. The fact that its Linux and online services makes no difference. The competition is always there, Lewin says.

Lewin is also realistic in his assessment of the current crop of competitors. Google, he says, has done an "excellent" job using algorithms to rank the wisdom of crowds, but it's a system that's hard to scale. He also notes - correctly - that while Google uses open technologies like Lnux, programming to the Google ad serving engine is a black-box environment.

Apple is doing "very well" with "very efficient and seamless systems to deliver content, music and applications to devices." It's worth remembering that Lewin helped make Apple the company it is today: As director of education marketing and sales between 1981 and 1984, he ran Apple's University Consortium program, putting Macs into the hands of students and teaching staff. This solidified the Mac's presence in learning.

As for Amazon, which set the pace in cloud computing, Lewin sees it as a provider of highly efficient servers providing commodity computing and storage but that the challenge is to move up the stack and add value.

When it comes to wooing startups in mobile and online services today, Lewin believes Microsoft's well placed because of Microsoft's role as an infrastructure platform provider. Microsoft's spent decades perfecting identity, directories, presence, and management that underpin things like location-based services in Exchange, Outlook, and Windows. Microsoft's also rolling of a large-scale computing fabric, with its Azure data centers.

"You need controls to make this stuff work and that plays well to what Microsoft has been doing - to building out the attendant infrastructure servers, orchestration servers that we have in the fabric controller in the cloud to orchestrate loosely coupled, long running transactions. We are betting on the fact you will have this blended world of assets - of infrastructure servers that will map to attendant services," Lewin said.

"We are talking about real scale - billions of dollars of infrastructure."

When it comes to the kinds of companies Lewin's bringing to Microsoft's platforms, the lion's share are those building services-based businesses on the cloud, he said.

As a tech executive who's lived and worked the Valley for 34 years, sat near the top Apple, advised startups, and landed at Microsoft, Lewin's seen computing trends come and go. Lewin feels confident that today's emerging wave of online services is not just viable - but that its time has come. That's unlike the last online services wave that gripped the Valley - the doomed dot-com era that crashed just as Lewin joined Microsoft.

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