Microsofts Floundering, Uncool and Lacking Innovation

Posted: April 2, 2011 in Business 2.0

I'm a Steve Ballmer

General lack of coolness
Microsoft have always been uncool, but it never used to matter. Why? Because back when Windows 95 came out computers were still not really domestic devices. The Internet was still made up of pictures of Anna Nicole Smith, tech articles and university sites. Kids might have played computer games but that was probably about it.

Scroll forward to today and the whole scene has changed. Computers are now true consumer devices and that consumer is the notorious Gen-Y. The same Gen that spends leisure time on Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, sharing photos of themselves and listening to MP3s is also deeply concerned about what is cool.

It all starts at the top. Go check out some videos of Steve Balmer, then Steve Jobs. The difference couldn’t be clearer. When Balmer talks about photo or music sharing you know he does about as much of that as your dad. They have tried so hard to market cool to the photo sharing public, but are being so outpaced by Apple it’s embarrassing. Meanwhile the Gen-Y’s are out in force pimping their Macbooks in cafes, flaunting their white headphones and ipads.

This will create two serious problems for Microsoft. Firstly Gen-Y is taking over the world, while the Bill Gates generation are retiring. But worse is an old secret Microsoft knew well, that business computing is driven by home computing. In the 90s business users had CD Roms, sound cards and Windows 95 at home. Anything we have at home eventually gets dragged into the office. The same thing is starting to happen for Apple. Innovation at home drives adoption in the office.

Lack of Innovation & Hardware
The best example to demonstrate the way Microsoft innovates is the touch mouse. I remember seeing a video tour of Microsoft labs last year, where nerdy looking guys demonstrated possible future mice designs. There was lots of cutting edge but blatantly awkward R&D efforts showing different designs. Among the pack they showed off several ugly looking prototype multi touch mice they had in development. Apparently at some time in the distant future this technology might make it to production.

Several months later Apple released their multi touch mouse. An elegant curve of translucent plastic containing all the flash goodies Microsoft had predicted for the future. I could only imagine the disappointment back at Microsoft labs.

As another example, Microsoft had the handheld market for 10 years and the best they could do was that horrible cut down Windows Mobile OS. The same OS made damn sure no one was dreaming about having the latest Microsoft mobile device. Apple came into the market and killed them with their first iPhone release.

MS also had a monopoly on tablets, where, like mobile, they simply added some new features to their standard OS. Remember those laptops with the fold over screen and the stylus. Once again blown away by Apples first release of the iPad.

Part of this is lack of control over hardware of course. If the best your hardware partners can come up with is a Compaq iPaq you’re pretty much f@cked no matter what you do.

For Apple innovation is business as usual. Every year they hold Macworld and show off a game changing device, that’s just what they do as a company. The company is tuned to turn out killer new devices and big leaps forward. Microsoft as a company seems to be the opposite, an organisation which stumbles around spending billions on innovation with little to show. Some light was thrown on this last year by Dick Brass, a former Microsoft exec, who released an article blasting the way the internal bureaucracy deliberately gets in the way of innovation.

Do you think Steve Jobs would put up with this? No way. He’s a maniacal dictator, but one with a clear vision who gets what he wants. If he sniffed any of this behaviour at Apple there would be mass firings (without a second thought).

It shows once again that innovation isn’t a lab off to the side of a business, it’s the way a good business is setup to work. There is always a competitor coming from behind, if we don’t leap forward each year we loose our audiences attention and someone else will get it. Apple makes sure every year legions of fans are waiting for the next big thing and Apple always delivers this to them.


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