Thursday, February 4, 2010

Is Microsoft Imploding?

My brothers sent me (separately) links to the recent NYT article by Dick Brass on the demise of Microsoft at their own hand.  It’s titled “Microsoft’s Creative Destruction”.  My first reply was kind of errantly focused on the broader issues of Apple and Google and whether Microsoft really figures into that triad of triviality.  Whatever that means.

My second reply came after a few more re-readings…

“Ok, after a second, and indeed a third reading of this article, I wanted to address it from his same point of view:

He's correct.

From what I gather from talking with the few I know who work there, or used to work there, there are bright spots within the company: The System Center division is producing remarkable products and gaining not only accolades but marketshare.  Office 2010 is already garnering praise in ways similar to Windows 7.
One of the blogs I follow daily is that of "Mini-Microsoft".  An (supposedly) unidentified "insider" who has become widely recognized as the internal voice of "what's wrong" within the inerds.  Even MS execs cite his posts often (there's even a Channel 9 video interview with Lisa Brummel, Microsoft's VP of Human Resources which focuses almost entirely on Mini's complaints and suggestions).
The company is fucking huge. Too huge.  It's like GM.  World-wide, multi-cultural and multi-language.  I have no idea how anyone could effectively manage a project which is literally parsed out around the globe like Windows and Office are.  It reminds me of the overwhelming complexity of designing and building an aircraft carrier.  It's just magic I suppose.  I may never understand how it works.
I agree with his overall take and that it's a big question mark.  Most would agree that one of their biggest faults is that they're easily distracted by irrelevant markets and deluded into believing they become threatening “competition”.  Markets like mobile media players, game consoles, web browsers, search services, and mobile operating systems.  They chase the wrong vermin.  It wastes their time, energy and budgets and makes them look oafish in the end.
As a comparison however, Apple has had their share of problems and problem decisions.  They are executing fairly well overall, but lately they too seem to be wavering a bit.  Ironically, the iPad is a good example mainly because there was almost nothing announced that wasn't anticipated.  That's a subtle but significant "first" for Apple in over a decade.  The iPad should've blown people away.  Instead it was just "pretty cool".  I don't know anyone, Apple enthusiast or not, who is saying "I have GOT to get one of those!"  Not like they did with the iPod Touch or the iPhone.  Even Macbook's got more excitement buzzing from their launch than this.  And like I said before: the design is shockingly un-exciting for an Apple "first".  It's just, well, Microsoft-ish.
A lot of buzz is coming out of Google that they too are facing a point of inflection.  They've grown in size to rival early Microsoft.  Shear number of employees, global dispersion (time zones, languages, cultures), and now they're starting to feel the gradual tug of market gravity as they fall into a (for now) tiff with Apple in both the phone and tablet markets.  Did you notice that within 24 hours of Jobs making his recent "Google is evil" comment that Google unlocked the multi-touch feature on the Nexus phone?  It was sure talked about in the tech community.  They've already been showing off their Chrome OS tablet with multi-touch as well.  Schmidt and Jobs are shaping up to be quite a pair.  All they need is TMZ following them around and it will be great ratings fodder.
But, the issue there is that Google is starting to chase side markets.  Remember, they get almost 99 percent of their revenue from advertising.  Everything else is given out "free" or laced with ads.  It's a smart approach, but only while the game rules are like they are now.  Things will change of course.
And what will happen to Apple when Jobs departs (or passes on)?  There really isn't anyone else with the same charisma, command and confidence to instill a sense of a bold future beyond that.  Schiller? Oppenheimer?  Cook?  Serlet?  Tammadon?  I don't think so.
It seems to be shaping up like Gates handing the baton to Ballmer.  What a mess.
So, back to the path:  Yes, Microsoft has dealt themselves some pretty horrific blows over the years.  He didn't even touch on the NetDocs vs Office battle that raged for years.  That was infamous.  They're still blowing their own heads off in the Windows Mobile space (WM 7 has been promised and delayed for years.  Still not certain).  They shot from the hip with Windows Home Server, which is an amazing product, released with almost no meaningful official "push", more of a small-team grass-roots effort.  But the only partners they could rustle up were Toshiba and HP and only HP is making any profit.  They're still scoffing at Netbooks and gave up on Tablets (like he mentioned).  And they've taken way too long to counter Google Docs.  However, Google has remained silent on a counter to Microsoft's SkyDrive, which blows my f**king mind to Jupiter how they could have missed that obvious opportunity.  Microsoft actually has multiple, including Live Mesh.  Another example of a multi-headed beast marching in twenty directions at once.
I could go on and on, but for every goof they've made, they've somehow managed to crank out an equal success,even if small.  I think that's how they've managed to hold on.  That and the fact that they've won over IT geeks for years with their focus and attention on the plumbing technologies like COM, WMI, SNMP, LDAP, .NET, RPC, WinRM, WPF and so on.  They are the absolute king of API's and documentation. They know how to make building blocks that stick together like Lego's.  That is like heroin for enterprise IT admins and corporate developers. Actually, more like crack.  IBM ignored that too long and lost the game.  Apple ignores it.  Google sees that but is only building the kits for use outside the corporate space, which is a gamble.  Time will tell.
Footnotes:
XBox comment – Yes, it’s a worthy component of their consumer base.  But it’s widely believed to be a break-even prospect for them internally.  Even their relationship with Bungee has been someone unclear at times.
WHS comment – The storage problem early on highlighted a disparity between the WHS group and other groups dealing with storage.  The lack of partner product momentum at the outset was an indication of initial uncertainty, when it should have been more prominent and visible.
Plumbing technologies comment – Yes, I know they didn’t invent many of those mentioned, but they did exert incredible effort in tying them into their products across multiple divisions no less.  And the efforts of TechNet and MSDN are no less than amazing in their own rite.
Google – I didn’t really dive into the fact that they too have bought into their share of empowerment without building it themselves.  YouTube is a great example.  Orkut however is a horrible example.

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