Perspective: The Challenges Facing Microsoft

December 2004 marked the date that I ‘threw in the towel’ on using Microsoft as my computing platform. Since that date I have been pushing more and more people towards being Apple converts, and criticizing a company that I – that we – once loved.

Now before I get into the why and how and future of Microsoft; it is crucial to note my bias. I own Microsoft stock, I have owned stock since around 1999, right before the bubble. I don’t own a lot, and I really don’t play the stock market. Anybody who knows me personally would tell you that I am the last person in the world they think owns Microsoft stock, but in 1999 it was the thing to do. That being said let’s get on with this…

Microsoft is at a crucial apex right now, they may be passed by Apple in market cap, and they need strong sales from the newest version of Office, and Windows 7 to keep their stock from slipping. After being a staple of the mobile phone industry, they currently offer nothing that competes with the triumvirate of Google, Apple, RIM. The Xbox can’t and won’t support them financially, people are moving small server setups to cloud owned by Linux based systems. A storm is brewing over Redmond, and their CEO Steve Ballmer knows it.

This is nothing that has not been said a million times over – and it will keep being said until the mighty Microsoft roars again. I have been fortunate to grow up with a computer for most of my life, and have lived in the shadow of Microsoft here in Washington State. As such I have a few ideas of what Microsoft needs to do to right the ship and make themselves relevant once again.

One

It is time to scale back Microsoft, they are a huge bureaucracy and this is not a business model that leads to the innovation that they desperately need. I am not advocating massive lay offs and down sizing, the beast needs to be broken up. Microsoft should create teams and groups that work on just one thing. Don’t allow in-fighting, give these teams the power to push their product all the way to release.

Let’s take the office team, I would break it up by the core products: Word, Excel, PowerPoint, etc.. Give these teams the ability to completely rework the app, from the ground up. There should always be design consistency, but the design needs to be flexible enough that it is similar, but specific to each application.

The ‘ribbon’ toolbar that Microsoft introduced in the latest version of Office is great for new users, who don’t know how to find commands, but terrible for existing users. Clearly there is a better way, and Microsoft needs to give their designers the leeway to find the better way.

Two

Microsoft, now more than ever, needs to define what they do, and what business they are in. Right now, as an outsider looking in at the company, it would seem that Microsoft sells Windows and everything Windows, with a side of Office. They are branding everything they do with the “Windows” moniker. This is a poor approach and they need to look like a well diversified, a non-monopoly, in order to gain back the trust and support of their users.

Microsoft needs to allow their software to have its own brand, it’s all being made by Microsoft but it is all different. Imagine if Apple followed in Microsoft’s naming scheme: the Mac iPod, Mac iPhone, Mac iPad, Mac iTunes, what a terrible thing that would be. Office, Phone OSes, Xbox are all strong enough to stand on their own if you let them.

Basically: stop calling everything “Windows XYZ”. Stop now.

Three

Innovate, innovate, innovate. The entire tech community was delighted to see the Courier concept, only for Microsoft to kill it off later on, stating it was just a concept. I thought the same thing about the Microsoft Surface with its smaller market size for the $10,000 computing coffee table. However Microsoft actually made the Surface, though I have yet to see one in person and as such am still skeptical about the Surface’s existence.

Right now, no one can imagine Microsoft being the first to market with something like the iPad, that is a huge problem for Microsoft. People should be looking towards Microsoft wondering how they are going to change computing next, instead of looking towards them wondering what they will copy next.

Microsoft does not and should not get into the hardware business, they should however push their hardware vendors to be better. The best way to do that is to continue making cool concepts providing the software for them, thus allowing the hardware manufacturers to make great devices that support this software. All this is pretty basic, yet we are not seeing it done (by Microsoft).

Four

Pull your head out of the sand, and show some respect.

Everyone knows and expects Apple and Microsoft to trade jabs with one another, they are for the most part playful – on Apples part. Apple knows that it needs Microsoft’s Office suite to stay viable in business settings (though it is needed less and less each quarter), Microsoft however does not need Apple to stay in business. This has lead to a lot of nasty jabs from Microsoft’s CEO Steve Ballmer.

Ballmer has stated his hatred for the iPhone on more than one occasion. They were not said in a nice competitive tone, but with disdain.

It would seem Microsoft spends more time mocking what Apple does, then they do, well, doing anything.

Time to pull your head out of the sand Ballmer, stop criticizing Apple and start being better than them, you say you can be, now it is time to prove it.

Shut up or put up.

Last

Microsoft needs a visionary, they need their own Steve Jobs. Bill Gates used to be that visionary for the company, now he has moved on to charitable causes and Microsoft is left without that visionary. Ballmer is not this person – he is not the guy to lead the company forward. He is the guy to keep the company treading water (hopefully).

I don’t know who Microsoft should find to give them a new vision, perhaps it is not just one person, perhaps is it is a group of people. Whatever it may be, one thing is clear, that Microsoft needs to find a new visionary (or visionaries) soon.

Originally posted for members on: May 19, 2010
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