Microsoft Needs to Learn from Apple’s Near Death

I just finished watching Pirates of Silicon Valley – a sort of faux documentary on the rise of Apple and Microsoft. It was interesting to watch this film in the light of today’s world — when the movie was made no one knew that Apple would return from what looked to be certain death and come back to post a $300 billion market cap. Personally I don’t put much weight into the facts and events depicted in the film, nor should you, but you can see a lot of why things between Apple and Microsoft went they way they did. ((Such as why Jobs was kicked out of his company. Why Microsoft thinks the way they do. And so forth.))

In the technology world there are two very important things: making something great for users, and being the first to ship. When you combine these two things you get products like: the iPod, the iPhone, the iPad, Mac OS X. When you fail to meet one or both of these goals you get things like: Windows Vista, or the Kin.

That is not to say that Microsoft is always wrong and Apple is infallible. No: both companies are wrong from time to time and both hit it out of the ballpark from time to time as well.

I think as Apple fans we have this fear — irrational as it may be — that Apple will get tripped up the way they did in the late 80s through the mid 90s. We are massively off base with that fear — both Jobs and Apple have learned just how painful their mistakes of the past were.

The problem I see is that Microsoft has yet to learn from Apple’s mistakes. There is a great scene in the movie when Gates, Ballmer, and Allen go to IBM to sell DOS. The character of Ballmer has a great line where he basically tells the viewer that Gates and Microsoft have no such operating system, but that Gates wanted to pitch it and sell it — then worry about shipping and making it. This is a theme carried out in the movie: Apple is visionary and makes neat stuff before Microsoft can; Microsoft just buys or “steals” what they can and ships it as quickly as possible with a wide channel of distribution.

I don’t know how true, or if any part of the story depicted is true, but I think it is an apt reflection of the problems that we are seeing with Microsoft today, as well as companies like:

  • Google
  • RIM
  • HP
  • Other mobile device manufacturers ((One’s that aren’t called Apple.))

What we are seeing is that these companies come out and announce all sorts of great sounding new products — yet by the time they are actually able to make and ship them the market has drastically changed, OR their product has drastically changed. This, I believe, is the greatest thing that Apple learned: keep your mouth shut, work hard, and ship as soon as you have something great.

The movie perfectly shows the trouble that Apple, Jobs, and other companies ((Xerox)) got into by showing off products before they were ready to ship.

Secrecy is a very hard thing for most companies to adopt. Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, and various other “small” companies are trying their best to strike a balance somewhere between Apple level secrecy and Microsoft level transparency. A healthy medium satisfies most customers, but is not the most beneficial method for the company because competitors are kept in the loop. Full transparency satisfies investors and consumers, but can be dangerous for companies because their competitors know exactly what they need to compete with. Full secrecy pisses off investors and consumers, but is mostly beneficial for the company keeping the secrets.

Lets go back to Microsoft for a bit — last year at CES, CEO Steve Ballmer took the stage and famously announced slate tablets — tablets that he said would be awesome. ((I am paraphrasing.)) Ballmer made this classic Microsoft move as a way to try and quell rumors of a forth coming Apple tablet — one we now call iPad — yet a year later with Ballmer set to take the same stage, to presumably make the same announcement, we see very few slate tablets running Microsoft.

Microsoft failed to ship.

This won’t kill Microsoft, but it does hurt them both in the short and long term. Sales hurt in the short term and because the company survived the short term sales loss the executives running Microsoft will see no need to change their over arching philosophy: the pre-announcing nonexistent devices.

If Microsoft does not wake up and fails to see a true financial hardship from making promises they can’t keep — what is to stop them from making more promises that they have no intention (or care) of keeping? I am not suggesting that Microsoft start being secretive — rather I think it is imperative for Microsoft to start being realistic about ship dates. They can’t afford to keep announcing things that never materialize.