“The PC wars are over. Done. Microsoft won a long time ago.”
- Steve Jobs, Fortune, 19 February 1996
“The post-PC war is over. Apple won. Time for the next thing.”
- Chris Adams, this blog. 2 April 2013
It’s 2013, 3 years into the existence of the iPad. The markets for tablets and phones are dominated by Apple, Google and Samsung. Microsoft, once high and mighty on PCs, is lost and adrift but it’s still got tremendous potential. If I could take over Microsoft tomorrow I’d change a few things and try to give Microsoft a reason to exist, maybe even bring it to newfound glory eventually. Here’s what I’d do.
1. Plug the leaks
- Continue profitable businesses and lose the ego.
The MS Office team missed the boat on iPad but it’s not too late. Office should be everywhere, and office should interoperate with everything out of the box without forcing anyone to convert their files.
- Reward collaboration and punish infighting.
Land grabs are best handled via intense competition, so Microsoft’s way of taking the PC market in the 80s and 90s made sense. But now all the land’s taken: the market has matured. Now, competitive minds turn to taking territory from others, which translates inside Microsoft to backstabbing and fiefdoms. Market share of a mature market is best taken carefully through iterative refinement; people will only switch to a similar product if it’s significantly better. Google Chrome took 30-40% of browser market share, for example, by getting better every single day while IE and Mozilla moved as slow as molasses by comparison. Microsoft needs to stop infighting and collaborate, then learn to iterate quickly, so its products can be the best in their categories.
- Address tiny annoying details.
Microsoft used to have a culture of “eating your own dogfood” which led to products that people enjoy using. There might’ve been flaws in the large but the small details were mostly right, for it’s the small details that make something pleasant to use. These days, Microsoft products are coming out with stupid glaring issues. My guess is no-one at Microsoft wants to talk about “elephants in the room” – no one wants to talk about why their baby is ugly. Why, for instance, does scrolling vertically on your mouse produce horizontal scroll in Microsoft’s brand-new UI? (Microsoft invented the scroll wheel after all.) And why are the menus and status bars on in Office and Visual Studio in all capital letters, defying decades of research about how our eyes perceive words? These tiny things make Microsoft’s products not worth paying money for. Steve Jobs always said Microsoft had no taste; that needs to change.
- Exit unprofitable businesses.
MSN/Bing are big money losers. Sell ASAP. Leave terms in the sale contracts to ensure Microsoft keeps advantages where products work well together. There are surely people clamouring to buy businesses Microsoft can’t run profitably.
2. Pick a direction for the ship
Create a new mission.
“To improve humanity through computing.”
“A computer on every desk” was the old mission. Congratulations Microsoft, you got there. However 1) no-one really thought about why that was a worthwhile mission and 2) Microsoft still exists and needs a reason to continue to do so, lest it fade into irrelevance.
Microsoft is a big engine powered by a few very solid revenue sources. It still has plenty of smart people. If people are given a new, positive purpose which can last decades, it will send a spark through the company that will bring about all sorts of new things. It’s also inspirational and loosely-defined enough to inspire the sort of bottom-up idea generation that has been a fixture of capitalism in the 21st century – it’s led to the startup culture and “intrapreneurship” – entrepreneurship within companies.
3. Turn the ship
- Open source.
Stop building MIcrosoft-versions of stuff. Contribute to LLVM, Clang, WebKit. Releasing the source of “Microsoft’s answer to X” was a start (eg. ASP.net MVC), but it’s time for some of Microsoft’s projects to be category-defining in the open source space. Move towards using less restrictive licenses for open source releases. Keep strategically important products as closed-source.
- Stop obsessing over backwards compatibility.
Controversial? Not really. Microsoft’s effort should instead be spent creating reasons for vendors to keep up with platform changes. Design trends and financial reasons are the biggest, but there are certainly others.
- Look at ways to bring education and finance to the third world.
The ultimate way to improve a society is through education. The best tool for that is technology – it provides access to information. Microsoft should be at the forefront.
- Use a bottom-up approach to idea generation about products.
“Improving humanity through computing” means different things to different people; to some, it’s augmentation (eg. Google Glass) and to others, it’s remote medical treatment (eg. a way to produce vaccines with just solar power.) – so it must then be up to individuals throughout the company to decide which things come under that banner, and the leadership to deliver resources.
4. Lead the armada
Go to the media. Announce the new mission. Key point: improving humanity really isn’t clearly defined. What it means is up to the individual, but the goal for the company’s leadership is to gather a set of positive actions, products, services etc., choose ones expected to be profitable, then do those.
Set expectations that it’s a big space – there’s a lot that can be done – and there may be a few months to years before any clear directions are chosen.
Point out other large famous companies have announced big turnarounds.
Focus less on competition (eg. Bing/Google, WinPhone/Android/iOS) and more on being the best Microsoft can be. “Nobody has to lose for Microsoft to win”. Yes, this is a shameless copy of Apple; as we now know, great artists steal.
In the short term nothing should change. More resources will become available for short-term strategic projects. Microsoft has some of the industry’s smartest people so have faith that new products, services, combinations, initiatives will come through in the mid to long term.
Microsoft has missed some pretty big stuff - even when it could see those things coming. Yes, it managed to eke out some territory, but controlling browser market share is nowhere near as strong as controlling, say, HTML. Microsoft has vision but sucks at execution. When you can talk about something but can’t execute, you’ve got an internal problem. In Microsoft’s case the problem isn’t the people – it’s its culture.
It would be amazing to see Microsoft lead something – in this case, a big company being run from the bottom up, and focused on positive outcomes with profitability as a happy byproduct. The potential’s there; it just needs the right leadership