Microsoft's Mountain man sees Jobsian past in .NET
Like NeXTSTEP. But 'open'
Nearly 10 years ago, Dan'l Lewin was given an almost unenviable role - to be Microsoft's ambassador in Silicon Valley, a place hostile towards his new employer.
But this former senior Apple executive asked for it.
Lewin was named vice-president of .NET development in January 2001, with the job of bringing start-ups and partners onto Microsoft's then new .NET platform. He was to work out of Microsoft's Mountain View, California campus - a small outpost operating 800 miles away from the Redmond mother ship.
Silicon Valley was hostile ground for Microsoft. The center of the US tech business was then, and remains today, home of some of Microsoft's most staunch rivals - Apple, Amazon, Borland, Google, Oracle, Netscape, Sun Microsystems, Salesforce.com, and Yahoo!.
And as for startups, the culture of the Valley was to team up with, or get bought, by one of the giants.
Lewin: Apple man turned .NET believer
It didn't help Microsoft that it had excluded itself from the political and social scene by basing itself in the far Pacific Northwest of Washington state.
That has hurt when it came to forging partnerships in a Valley where relationships come out of day-to-day networking and sometimes look more like casual hook-ups than deep technology deals - as in the case, over the years, of Google and Sun or Google and Salesforce.com.
When Lewin joined in 2001, though, the atmosphere was particularly poisonous. Microsoft had just been prosecuted by the US government for crushing the Valley's rising browser star, Netscape. The case had been helped along during US Congressional hearings by the buddy CEOs of Sun and Netscape telling politicians and millions of TV viewers that Microsoft was a threat to free society because it was a monopolist.
Meanwhile, in 2000, Oracle CEO Larry Ellison pitched in to the fight by hiring a team of private investigators to rifle the bins of two Washington DC lobby groups that had warned the public and politicians of the impact a ruling against Microsoft in the antitrust case could have on business. Ellison wanted proof the lobbyists had misrepresented themselves as independents when they'd been sponsored by Microsoft.
"We weren't spying. We were trying to expose what Microsoft was doing," Ellison told reporters at the time.
Yes, it was ironic - that not only was Lewin given the task of working with the very companies attacking Microsoft and of trying to persuade start-ups to look outside the Valley, but that Apple's former director of education marketing and sales who'd also joined Steve Jobs' as vice president of sales and marketing at NeXT should actually approach Microsoft's chief executive Steve Ballmer for a job.
With his 10-year anniversary on the horizon, Lewin has told The Reg the thing that promoted him to write a speculative email to Ballmer was a speech by Microsoft's then-new CEO on something called .NET. This was Microsoft's brand-new application framework that used and consumed the then equally new open-specifications and standards XML and SOAP and talked web services.
.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.
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.
Why? The rise of open systems and web services that didn't exist ten years ago and that let companies connect. Microsoft helped in this, through its work on XML and AJAX. Also, social computing was an idea that's been brewing for some time and is now being driven by Facebook.
Of course, not even XML or web services can help if the fundamental business idea behind a startup is flawed. Lewin talks of one start-up he worked with during the dot-com era that he won't name, which wanted him to do what he laughingly calls "unnatural acts of business" with giveaways for growth. Funny, that sounds like the kind of thinking from just a few years back, with attempts to find ways of turning free and open-source code into gold.
The companies like eBay and Amazon that survived the dot.com era were built on what Lewin calls fundamental business tenets such as trading or logistics - things that already worked in the offline world. "Just because there's a browser available, doesn't make it a great business," he said.
There's a new ferocity in the Valley today, with a race underway to sign partners and developers to a new generation of platforms - the cloud and mobile. Some of the names have gone since the last race finished, while the winners from that competition are sticking around for a second try.
For Lewin, at least, Microsoft is working in a more interoperable world while - partly thanks to Lewin's 34-year history in the place - his employer's not quite the outsider it was nearly ten years back. ®