Last month, I told you how DEC, once the world’s second-largest computer company, spiraled down into death by not recognizing the market changes happening around it. That same, self-inflicted death spiral could happen to Microsoft if it doesn’t start recognizing current market trends better than it has.
An old proverb, allegedly Russian, says, “When all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.” To DEC, everything looked like a VAX. To Microsoft, everything looks like a PC.
When Microsoft first entered the palmtop market a decade ago, what did it call its product? Yep, a Pocket PC. Its proudest features were Pocket Word and Pocket Excel. I still have one that I use as a paperweight. My cat Simba sometimes knocks it off my desktop just for fun.
Why do customers buy palmtop devices? Instant access—it’s in your pocket when you need it. In return, you sacrifice display size and ease of input. A user won’t limp along doing spreadsheets on her palmtop device for very long, because it’s much harder there than on her PC. She’ll use the palmtop for purposes that require instant access, like getting directions when her husband is lost and won’t admit it. It’s an entirely different beast, not a smaller PC.
Microsoft took a decade to realize how palmtop devices differ from PCs and produce a decent one, the Windows Phone 7. Its voice integration with Bing is superb—just say what you’re looking for (“Cape Ann Veterinary”), and it not only finds and displays the site, but also offers to call the business or navigate you to it. Now thatmakes life easier—not tapping in Excel spreadsheet entries with a stylus, one painful character at a time.
But even today, what comes on every Windows Phone 7 device? Office Mobile, with Word, Excel and PowerPoint. Just in case Notepad isn’t enough for my grocery list. I’d rather use the space for more music or games or higher-res pictures, but I can’t remove Office—Microsoft glued it in place. We’re Microsoft, we’re a PC company, Thou shalt carry Office.
Microsoft is now falling farther behind in the tablet market. It brought out its first tablet PC about a decade ago—an overpriced, underpowered PC with touchscreen support so you could use your finger instead of a mouse. The silence was deafening. Dell offers only two models of Windows tablets today, both notebook PCs with touchscreens slapped on. The HP Slate is also a full Windows 7 PC, minus a keyboard. They’re a tiny niche market at best.
Apple sold 15 million iPads in the first nine months, while the Microsoft tablet has flailed around for a decade. Why? Because Apple realizes what Microsoft does not: the true laptop form factor is an entirely different device, not a smaller PC. It requires a completely different design approach, much closer to a phone than to a PC. I’m watching my 8-year-old daughter play with my father’s iPad as I write these words. She loves it, far more than her PC at home. I wouldn’t write a novel on one, but my daughter prefers it for kaleidoscope art and pony races. “Toys,” sneered one current Microsoft employee. That’s exactly what Ken Olsen used to say about PCs.
Like French generals building the Maginot line after WWI, Microsoft keeps fighting the last war over again. And like the French, the company will get slaughtered if it doesn’t break its self-reinforcing positive feedback loop and start realizing how the world has changed. Parts of Windows Phone 7 show the brilliance to which Microsoft developers can rise when their managers point them at the correct problems. If Microsoft doesn’t open its eyes, Apple and Google will do to Microsoft what Microsoft and others did to DEC. If I’m still around to write Bill Gates’ obituary, I wonder how much of it I’ll be able to do by cutting and pasting from Ken Olsen’s.
David S. Platt teaches Programming .NET at Harvard University Extension School and at companies all over the world. He’s the author of 11 programming books, including “Why Software Sucks” (Addison-Wesley Professional, 2006) and “Introducing Microsoft .NET” (Microsoft Press, 2002). Microsoft named him a Software Legend in 2002. He wonders whether he should tape down two of his daughter’s fingers so she learns how to count in octal. You can contact him at rollthunder.com.
As a member of the Windows Mobile team from 2000-2006, this article definitely caught my eye. I have immense respect for David and I agree with much of what he's saying here. I just want to point out that the problem with MS in mobile wasn't what it did in 2000 with Pocket PC, but rather what it didn't do as time went on. In 2000, the market for such devices was pretty geek heavy. Pocket PC delivered mobile media, e-books, ARM centricity, and built a very large developer eco-system. The problem came later when MS decided that touch was dead and keypad smartphones were the future, and that they didn't continue to drive innovation as the market evolved beneath their feet. In some respects, they were TOO SOON with music and books on devices because the market wasn't ready for it and the user base at the time cared more about enterprise things. The leadership that could deliver the initial innovation of a very powerful (for the time) mobile device, just wasn't the right leadership for the later phases of the market. These lessons are not unique to the mobile device space; nor are they are unique to Microsoft, unfortunately.
I think Microsoft will remain the king of the Desktop which allows us to deal with medium to higher complexity tasks, so is the platform of choice for professionals. Mass market (children and grandpas) is other story. I would prefer them developing the next Desktop UI (a mix of 3D, Infographics and eye movement recognition) instead of focusing on HTML5 and these touch things (who can be hours and hours doing drag and drop without fatigue?). Mobile devices are for simple (yet useful) things "on the road", but for hard work you need ergonomic input devices, big screens and comfortable chairs. I hope Windows 8 will not hurt productivity by having such touch features.
It's hard to steer a Titanic, when the rudder is too small. Maybe if there were more delegation of decision making, it would help. Like the steerable "pods" on modern cruise ships... dang, they can even move that thing sideways. ICEBERG AHEAD!!! No problem.
I think Microsoft is catching up with windows 8 regarding to the phone and pad market. But now it seems they are going to make an even bigger misstake. After seeing the preview of the new user interface of Windows 8, it looks like the are seeing everything now as a phone or a pad. The tiles are nice for a phone or a tab, but don't bring it to the PC as a standard UI. The PC isn't a pad or a phone!
Microsoft wasn't the first spreadsheet or word processor. I always liked Word Perfect more. Now all I use is Word and Excel. Microsoft seems to take others ideas and make them better. I have faith that will continue with the phone. But I am feeling a little like Job these days.
I have enjoyed the last two columns about DEC. When I got into the industry in the early 1980's, Digital and Data General were two of the high fliers in the industry (Prime and Wang were some of the others). I became a VAX/VMS bigot and landed my first two jobs due to my VMS experience (at my first job Data General AOS/VS experience was a plus). However, it started becoming obvious around 1990 that Digital was losing its focus and that the industry was changing. It was a rather painful decision when I recommended to my employer we scrap our VAX systems, move our LAN services from Pathworks to Microsoft LAN Manager and database services to Unix. We immediately realized substantial license cost savings and had more support available for our new platforms. I am sorry to see Microsoft making so many mistakes these days with the newer mobile platforms. However, after my unfortunately VAX/VMS focus back in the eighties, I decided it was best to remain platform agnostic and focus on the best technology for the job at hand. As such, I have embraced Microsoft products, Linux and currently work with iOS on an iPod and iPad 2. Each platform has its strengths and benefits. I just hope that Microsoft does not screw things up so badly that it eventually fails to remain a viable option.
I don't understand why it takes Microsoft so long to catch up. You don't have to be the first to be the greatest. I think a large part of this problem is the people "at the top" making these decisions who are also friends with each other. It's hard to say no or even worse, fire a friend who makes the wrong decisions.
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