Is Microsoft Putting Big Data At The Heart Of Their Business?

Since it was founded in 1975 by Bill Gates and Paul Allen, Microsoft has been a key player in just about every major advance in the use of computers, at home and in business.

Just as it anticipated the rise of the personal computer, the graphical operating system and the internet, it wasn’t taken by surprise by the dawn of the big data era. It might not always be the principle source of innovation, but it has always excelled at bringing innovation to the masses, and packaging it into a user-friendly product (even though many would argue against this). 

It has caused controversy along the way, though, and at one time was called an “abusive monopoly” by the US Department of Justice, over its packaging of Internet Explorer with Windows operating systems. And in 2004 it was fined over $600m by the European Union following anti-trust action.

The company’s fortunes have wavered in recent years – notably, they were slow to come up with a solid plan for capturing a significant share of the booming mobile market, causing them to lose ground (and brand recognition) to competitors Apple and Google.

However it remains a market leader in business and home computer operating systems, office productivity software, web browsers, games consoles and search – Bing having overtaken Yahoo as the second most-used search engine.

It is now angling to become a key player in big data, too – offering a suite of services and tools including data hosting and analytics services based on Hadoop to businesses.

But Microsoft had a substantial head-start over the competition – in fact their first forays into the world of big data started way before even the first version of MS-DOS. Gates and Allen’s first business venture, two years before Microsoft, a service providing real-time reports for traffic engineers using data from roadside traffic counters. It’s clear that the founders of what would grow into the world’s biggest software company knew how important information (specifically, getting the right information to the right people, at the right time) would become in the digital age.

Microsoft competed in the search engine wars from the beginning, rebranding its engine along the way from MSN Search, to Windows Live Search and Live Search before finally arriving at Bing in 2009. Although most of the changes it brought in appeared designed to ape the undisputed champion of search Google (such as incorporating various indexes, public records and relevant paid advertising into its results) there are differences. Bing places more importance on how well-shared information is on social networks when ranking it, as well as geographical locations associated with the data.  

Microsoft’s Kinect device for the Xbox aims to capture more data than ever from our own living rooms. It uses an array of sensors to capture minute movements and is already able to monitor and record the heart rate of users, as well as activity levels. Patent applications suggest there are plans for much wider use, including monitoring the behaviour of television viewers, to provide a more interactive watching experience. The move fits in with Microsoft’s strategy of rebranding the Xbox – generally thought of as a games console – into an intelligent living room activity hub which monitors, records and adapts to users’ behaviour. No, you are not the only person who finds that idea a little bit scary!

In the business-to-business market, where Microsoft made its first fortunes with its OS and office software, it is now throwing all of its considerable weight into big data-related services for enterprise.

Like Google with its Adwords, Bing Ads provides pay-per-click advertising services which are targeted at a precise audience segment, identified through data collected about our browsing habits.

And like competitors Google and Amazon it offers its own “big data in a box” solutions, combining open-source with proprietary software to offer large-scale data analytics operations to businesses of all sizes.

Its Analytics Platform System marries Hadoop with its industry-standard SQL Server database management technology, while its ubiquitous Office 365 will soon make data analytics available to an even wider audience, with the inclusion of PowerBI – adding basic analytics functions to the world’s most widely used office productivity software.

It is also looking to stake its claim on the Internet of Things with Azure Intelligent Systems Service. This is a cloud-based framework built to handle streaming information from the growing number of online-enabled industrial and domestic devices, from manufacturing machinery to bathroom scales.

It may have missed a trick with mobile – prompting many premature declarations that Microsoft was falling behind the competition – but its keen embrace of data and analytics services show that it is still a key player.

When CEO Satya Nadella took up his post at the start of this year he emailed all employees letting them know he expected huge change in the industry, and the wider world, very soon, prompted by “an ever-growing network of connected devices, incredible computing capacity from the cloud, insights from big data and intelligence from machine learning.”

So it’s clear that Microsoft aims to put big data at the heart of its business activities for the foreseeable future, and provide (relatively) simple software solutions to help the rest of us do the same.

I hope you found this post useful. I am always keen to hear your views on the topic and invite you to comment with any thoughts you might have.

About : Bernard Marr is a globally recognized expert in strategic metrics and data. He helps companies manage, measure, analyze and improve performance.

His new book is: Big Data: Using Smart Big Data, Analytics and Metrics To Make Bette...

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