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When does Microsoft stop being Microsoft?

An astounding twenty years ago, my father bought Bill Gates’ book, “The Road Ahead”. A business book barely interested me at that age, but it came with a CD-ROM (contents above) that showed an exciting future, much of which will sound familiar today. It seemed only natural that Gates’ company, Microsoft, would play an integral part in this future. Who would have guessed that Microsoft would fail to be the leader of so many of today’s dominant technologies? In smartphones, they are reduced to competing for the “middle ground” with Sony, as Apple and Google innovate. In television, again, Apple and Google, as well as the likes of Amazon, Netflix. In gaming, it has lost the console crown to Sony’s Playstation 4. And its famous OS, Windows, went through significant problems in its most recent iteration when myriad complaints about the absence of a Start button and a generally perplexing UX caused a volte-face that served as an embarrassing period for the company.

Since Satya Nadella took over as chief executive last year, there has been much talk of change in the way Microsoft does business, and indeed, in which businesses it will continue to operate in. But how much should Microsoft change before it loses touch with its roots? When does Microsoft stop being Microsoft?

In an article published in The Economist last month, the newspaper detailed how any business project that seemed to operate in an adjacent or transformative area for Microsoft – and thus by implication weakened the focus on Windows – was given short shrift during the days of Gates, who was known to utter in disbelief: “WHAT are you on? The ‘fuck Windows’ strategy?”. The Economist goes on to write that many of the companies best innovations were killed at the hands of this “strategy tax”. This phrase reportedly makes Mr Nadella shudder now, and he encourages innovations in areas that interest people. This has had noticeable effects; Microsoft wares are no longer confined to a walled garden. Office programs are available on smartphones, and the company is working more closely with Linux, an open-source platform that erstwhile chief exec Steve Ballmer once referred to as a “cancer”.

20150404_WBC737_0This previous reluctance to embrace open-source drove initial (and hugely profitable) success. But today, as computing moves to the cloud, The Economist writes, “this model is breaking down. Software is becoming a service delivered over the internet and mostly based on open standards”. Although it innovated in the right areas – specifically cloud computing and smartphones – its reluctance to allow people to run anything on these platforms but Windows OS not only narrowed their offering but allowed for competitors, the likes of Amazon and Apple, respectively, to move in. It is thus interesting to note that Nadella’s motto for Microsoft is “mobile first, cloud first”.

It is interesting to note that Mr Nadella rose to the top via Microsoft’s cloud business (Azur), rebuilding revenues by “letting customers use their own choice of software”. Office is available as a freemium model, and he has reached across the aisle in making it available on Android and iOS devices. The company allows Office 365 users to save their files “on the servers of Box, an enterprise-software firm. ‘They used to treat us like arch-enemies’, says Aaron Levie, Box’s boss.” Importantly, the ways of working have changed there; agile work practices are now in place, with products being tested and released iteratively under the umbrella “Garage”.

These changes are evidently not merely cosmetic. It does seem to be part of a renewed focus (that may even involve the spinning off of Xbox). It is key changes like this that IBM – a behemoth once surpassed by Microsoft, which is in its own throes of evolution as it looks to consulting and a partnership with Apple – is also engaging in. There are challenges though. On the subject of clawing back the hearts and minds of mobile developers, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen told The New York Times recently, “It’s very challenging to carve back market share”. It speaks to a larger problem around talent. Marco Iansiti of Harvard Business School commented recently “Microsoft has lost a lot of great people”. Furthermore, its cloud and mobile focus could be dangerous; while its cloud services revenue is growing, it will not be enough to be make up for losses elsewhere. In mobile, the purchase of Nokia is increasingly seen as a misguided decision. Such challenges are compounded by the fact that, as Allen says, Microsoft has “more competitors than any major C.E.O. in the world” has to deal with. Faced with such fundamental change to the business on its own Road Ahead, it should be of small comfort that Boston Consulting Group published a report in April entitled “There’s no such thing as corporate DNA”, with the subheading “Why You Have to Be Prepared to Change Everything to Endure“.

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