Editorial: Why Microsoft Lost the War on Location Intelligence

August 27, 2013

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It’s hard to lose a war in which you never fully engaged, but Microsoft let slip an opportunity that it should now regret. With the coming departure of  CEO Steve Ballmer, which was announced last week (he intends to retire within the next 12 months), maybe someone will give location technology its due and start building products and solutions that address the new explosion of enterprise location opportunities. The Wall Street Journal report on August 24 suggests that Steven Elop, current Nokia CEO and a former Microsoft executive, is being considered as a replacement. He is at least closer to the location technology revolution than anyone currently in the executive suites of Microsoft.

Location technology and specifically the applications of location in enterprise solutions, cloud computing and geospatial analysis were never fully embraced by Microsoft. The reason was organizational ambivalence and dysfunction. From Microsoft MapPoint to the SQL Spatial, Microsoft never saw the opportunity, and continues to ignore the potential it has, to integrate existing in-house technology in order to mount a serious charge in location intelligence. Its efforts are disjointed at best.

Let’s consider MapPoint. It was a great product when first introduced in 1998, but never really got beyond a desktop solution, even with the attempt at Mapoint.NET in 2002. It certainly could have been migrated to a SaaS application. It had a very intuitive interface, simplified workflows and the resulting map display was above average. It continues as a stand-alone product.

How about SQL Spatial, which launched in 2008? What - you didn’t know Microsoft offers a spatial database? That’s because you never hear much about it. You need to dig around and do a Goo… sorry, Bing search to even find people working with SQL Spatial. It’s unconscionable that Microsoft fails to bring these tools into more relevance. The last time I spoke with my contacts at Microsoft there were only a handful of people working on the SQL Spatial platform and  new product features were less apt to make it into the final feature requirements because of other, apparently more critical, Office product functions.

Then there was Microsoft TerraServer that eventually gave rise to Microsoft Virtual Earth and ultimately to Bing Maps. It was developed several years before Google Earth. A missed opportunity to say the least. Before it was shut down, TerraServer used to sit in an area called Microsoft Research, which has recently given rise to a new product called GeoFlow (more about that later).

Then there is the question about why Microsoft abandoned a mapping tool to work within Office. There have been fits and starts over the years. In the early ‘90s Microsoft worked with MapInfo (now Pitney Bowes) to embed basic mapping functionality but eventually that tool disappeared. Now there’s Power Map Preview launched this past spring, formerly GeoFlow, which is available for download as long as you have Office 2013 or Office Pro 365. It’s also considered part of Power BI for Office 365. Microsoft just can’t seem to find a home for its location technology. It’s so buried that you would never know Microsoft has a location-enabled BI solution.

The biggest head-scratcher of all is Microsoft’s 2006 acquisition of Vexcel, the manufacturer of precision digital imaging cameras. It has benefited Microsoft’s ability to incorporate imagery within Bing Maps, but did it really need to acquire a company with such a niche specialty? I’ve often believed Microsoft should have bought DigitalGlobe or GeoEye but given its history with location technology I’m not sure Microsoft would have known what to do with an entire satellite anyway.

Clearly, Microsoft needs a location technology “champion.” Someone to muster the company’s entire suite of technology: Bing Maps, MapPoint, SQL Spatial, Vexcel, Power Map. It needs someone who can cross organizational barriers and bring it all together in a cohesive fashion. This observation was supported by Craig Mundie, a senior advisor to Ballmer, who said in a separate Wall Street Journal article on August 26, "Microsoft didn’t capitalize on new ideas because its structure didn’t make it easy for divisions to work together."

Microsoft has a stable of fine products but without quick action it will likely lose a looming battle with Google, which is sure to enter the location-enabled BI space soon. The clues are there. Google Fusion tables, Google Maps Enterprise, the recently completed online course called “Mapping with Google.” It all points to a coming tool for Google BI.

Hello Microsoft. You have the tools. Go build something great or lose another war on the location front.

Editor’s Note: Here are some additional resources:


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