What's going on with Microsoft?


What’s going on with Microsoft?

A few years back people referred to Microsoft as the “Evil Empire”, which was a backhanded compliment—Microsoft ruled the tech world. Their browser, Internet Explorer, dominated. Their operating systems ran just about every computing device made except mainframes. When Microsoft moved into a market, the competition quaked.

Not anymore.  Something is amiss in Redmond, Washington. The back office technical products like SQL Server and Active Directory are continuing to flourish and Azure is gaining momentum, but their consumer/user products are one disaster after another. Windows 8--what was that all about? The Surface tablet and the MS Phone—too late for the dance and always playing catch up.

Xbox One?Who in the world came up with the idea of not allowing ‘gamers’ to share games with their friends? Based on the advance reception the new Xbox has received, they’ll be lucky to sell half their projection. When Chief Marketing and Strategy Officer Yusuf Mehdi says they expected this reaction and they just have to ‘educate’ the users, he’s either crazy, extremely hopeful, or making it up as he goes. 

There’s a common thread here: Microsoft is not creating new concepts. Instead, they are continually caught flatfooted, watching other more nimble companies come in to their space with creative new products like iPads and Android phones. Then Microsoft rushes to catch up but arrives too late, when the market is already saturated. They always seem a step behind. Or worse, they see new products entering their space, and try to leapfrog the competition by going directly to where they think the market is heading, only to find out they landed in the wrong spot and the market has gone elsewhere.

Take Windows 8: Microsoft missed the whole “mobile” boat, as both Google and Apple crushed the PC market with iPads and smartphones. And what was Microsoft’s response? “Let’s develop one operating system that works on all devices.” That’s what Windows 8 was supposed to be. Unfortunately, no one wanted the same operating system on a PC that you have on a phone. Even Apple, the inventor of the smartphone (OK, maybe RIM), didn’t try to make their Desktops work with a phone operating system. What financial person, working in an office, wants to use a touch screen while they are already typing away on a keyboard with a mouse? There’s no point to it and your arms would get sore. Windows 8 leapfrogged over everyone else to have an operating system for all devices, and landed all by themselves on a square devoid of customers, competitors, and a reason for existing. It was a blunder of monumental proportions.

So now we’ve got Xbox One, which I predict will be the “New Coke” of the 21st Century. It’s as if someone in Redmond read about SaaS (software as a service) and thought, “that’s the way the whole world is going, so let’s get there first with gaming consoles.” In terms of gaming, wherever they went with Xbox One, they are undoubtedly there first. Unfortunately for them, they are also most likely there last as well, as their competitors are having a field day touting how they have not followed Microsoft’s lead. What was Microsoft thinking? You can’t sell your Xbox video game disks to friends or on Craig’s List? You have to log onto the Internet once a day? You can only lend your game ONCE to a friend (or take it to his or her house)? Someone is very out of touch with the consumer market.

Update 6/23/2013: Microsoft, in the face of the overwhelmingly bad publicity surrounding the new Xbox One policies, has reversed course, playing ‘leapfrog’ backwards. Now physical games can again be shared or sold, and users won’t be required to log onto the Internet every day. Unfortunately for Microsoft (but happily for Sony, which didn’t have to do anything to look good), there appear to be plenty of lingering bad feelings remaining, plus the new Xbox still costs $100 more than PlayStation. It also appears that there is no firm release date.

The next backtracking to watch for is a price drop to a more competitive level when presales don’t meet projections, and once again, what was Microsoft thinking? Who is coming up with these hair brained ideas? More information can be learned by clicking here.

Even what Microsoft did with Excel is at best pointless. Where you used to have menus and icons, now you’ve got this big, fat ribbon along the top, with functions arranged in some warped game of hide and seek so you can’t find them. Then when you do find them, you’ll still discover that it often takes two clicks to get to where one click used to take you. Sure you eventually get used to the ribbon, but I have never yet thought to myself, “what a great idea!”

Update: Steve Ballmer has promoted Julie Larson-Green to "head all software and hardware engineering, responsible for all product development for Windows and Windows Live, in addition to the Surface tablet". Julie Larson-Green is the person responsible for the Excel ribbon, which is still despised in many quarters, as can be seen by clicking here to see comments in The Seattle Times. I'm starting to suspect that the root of Microsoft's problems might have the initials "SB".

Update: Apparently I am not the only person who wondered if Steve Ballmer was doing a good job as CEO of Microsoft. He announced that he would resign, effective sometime in the next 12 months, and immediately Microsoft stock soared. I wish I were in that position--he quits, the stock go wild, and because he is such a large shareholder, he made $1Bn ($1,000,000,000). Wow! I'm sure there is some sort of lesson in that, but it won't be one that is easy to explain to children.

Microsoft has lost its creativity, and turned into just one more big, lumbering corporation. It has more in common with Procter and Gamble or Chrysler than Google or high tech start-ups. When I think of the people coming up with the new designs or ideas at Microsoft, I envision the same type of people who designed cars for Plymouth/Dodge—the Prowler, the PT Cruiser, or the Chrysler 500 (the only car ever designed to look like a cow’s head) and other retro type cars. Underpowered, strange looking, and pointless, they appeal to just a small fraction of the car buying population.

Microsoft does best when it sticks to the knitting and creates functional, strong, workhorse products. SQL Server is a tremendous product, as are the tools that go with it. Windows 7 and XP were great, reliable products. Microsoft is still a strong company, but they need to stop shooting themselves in the foot with half baked ideas that they delude themselves into thinking will work. Some real world focus groups would do them a world of good, rather than having to backtrack after the fact, time after time, when the real world says ‘no thanks’.