Microsoft Past, Present and Future
Ghost of Microsoft Past
Back in July, John Dvorak wrote an article entitled Is the party over for Microsoft? Setting aside his personal views, the article does a good job of listing many of Microsoft’s attempts to be everywhere by imitating or destroying the innoventions of others. There are more examples. Gaming became popular, so they launched Xbox, iPods begat Zune, and earlier this week noted the launch of the first Microsoft store. Microsoft plans to open one next to every major Apple store – a strategy similar to how Burger King handles McDonald’s.
I can’t think of anything Microsoft innovated in its history, except perhaps their Surface technology. The company was even founded on pitching a DOS PC product before they ever owned it (and they later purchased it rather than wrote it). I’m old enough to remember computing before Microsoft, when VAX/VMS and Unix systems were replacing mainframes, and in all cases computers often ran for years without a failure or reboot. Microsoft moved from the consumer desktop to the data center with Windows NT, which came out just months after Linus released the first versions of Linux on Usenet (the 2 events are independent of each other; Microsoft did not release NT because of Linux, their competition was Digital Equipment Corporation). With MS Windows came an OS locked into a GUI, which meant it was more bloated, difficult to script, tedious to perform repeat operations, and you could not remote control it (until someone eventually came out with tool that handled displaying the remote screen). Every patch and install required a reboot, and Windows crashed so frequently throughout its history that even today people believe you should reboot your servers once every month or so to prevent them from crashing unexpectedly. Not true for Unix and Linux, but people do it anyway.
Most Windows users and Admins today still are totally unaware of how, from the beginning, Unix X-Windows and Linux Gnome & KDE all support running displays and window mangers across multiple boxes. You also have Microsoft to thank for introducing the backslash as a character you type a lot– all other OS’s and the web have always used the forward slash.
Microsoft’s first networking technology was poor. DECnet, TCP/IP, and Novell had replaced IBM Token Ring and SNA, and these were routeable protocols. You could design large networks where traffic was isolate to the systems that needed to listen to it. Microsoft’s original network was flat, and for a while they argued it was the only way to do it, but reality eventually forced them to adopt segments and routing, and eventually the TCP/IP stack. For a long while it was quite a feat to get all the protocol stacks to work together on a desktop PC; even the order you loaded them determined what worked and what was broken.
WordPerfect and Lotus 1-2-3 were the widely used Word processor and spreadsheets. Microsoft countered with Word and Excel. WordPerfect was generally considered better because you could use it without ever touching the mouse; it had keyboard shortcuts and function keys for everything. This made it comfortable for use by fast typists. Both product suites existed in the enterprise for years, especially if you worked in the government, until Word finally won the war by the numbers.
Mosiac was the first browser, followed by Netscape as the first commercial browser. When its popularity soared, Microsoft fought back by creating an inferior browser and giving it away for free with the OS, essentially causing commercial enterprises to standardize on it for that financial advantage, and it put Netscape out of business. Microsoft also has a history of not adopting standards unless they modify them in ways that break everything not made by them. Ask any xhtml/css web developer trying to create sites compatible with multiple web browsers and phones what they think of Internet Explorer. They will tell you that they had so many frustrations they created an IE specific CSS file. I include myself in that group.
Not until Windows 2000 or XP did experienced IT professionals begin to feel that the Windows OS had matured enough to truly belong in the data center.
Most of Microsoft’s products, especially when compared to Apple Macs, have GUIs that seemed designed by people that have not actually asked end-users for their input. Actions often take 2 or 3 clicks to reach, and the configuration items are not in the same menus from program-to-program. I started using a MacBook less than 12 months ago and it’s amazing how much cleaner and well thought out the GUI is compared to Windows and Linux.
Microsoft has tried to be everywhere and everything, and had mastered nothing in that process. They have a wealth of products, but in many cases they were trail-and-error reactions to the competition, or purchased takeovers. The cash cow of Microsoft Office and Windows allowed them to take a loss on products competing in a lot of areas. But this is coming to an end, and the new generation of people growing up on smart phones, Google, and social media are more familiar with Microsoft alternatives. Microsoft Vista was one of their worst releases, forcing them to accelerate a release of a replacement, and don’t forget the day their music died.
Google, Apple, and Linux are all around them. Google has entered the Operating System space with Android and Chrome OS, and the browser market with Chrome. Microsoft fired back with the Bing search engine. Apple continues to earn customer loyalty and consumer awards, and dominates the mobile media market. Microsoft is ahead in Netbook sales, due to consumer familiarity rather than being a good OS option for that platform. This was an area where Linux could have been a natural leader, but they failed to deliver.
Microsoft made multiple announcements this year that are a turn-around from previous strategies. They are embracing Web 2.0 by providing free versions of Office as Web Applications. They came out with Bing; a new search engine that does not look like they even wrote it. It’s clean, simple in use and display, and does not follow their usual GUI style. It looks like Google. However they were also caught manipulating search results to favor making them look better than the competition, so they still need to work on that trust factor. They also took a step toward social media by creating a bunch of Twitter accounts, but currently they all serve as PR announcement tools and do not engage their customers in dialog, sometimes cross-posting between themselves.
If you haven’t seen it, the Microsoft Surface product is very cool.
Divisions and products are going to feel the force of making a profit rather than expecting market dominance and their size will continue to cover loses. The Xbox is a great product, but it needs to make a profit.
Windows 7 officially launched this week and is getting good reviews from grateful people dumping Vista.
Microsoft is still using their old playbook on some fronts. When most other technology stores are moving to the web, they are going to open physical stores for the first time in order to compete with Apple. Ignoring all the hype and flash, it’s not clear they understand that the success of Apple is not related to their stores, but their customer service, ease of adoption, and a better product. People go to Apple stores to see and touch very cool, artistic looking products. Will that apply to Microsoft Stores?
They’ve admitted they need to participate in social media by announcing deals with Facebook and Twitter to include their data in Bing. Microsoft and Google are both trying to get into the game. Google is better positioned from technology standpoint, with Google Connect and Profiles and maybe Wave, but social media all comes down to adoption. The users will decide, and right now that’s Twitter and Facebook. Google and Bing are moving as fast as possible to producing search results that change in real-time.
One of the coolest things to come out of Microsoft was a video showing their vision for Xbox’s future. They should be going all guns to deliver on the possibilities shown in their video. If they do, they will lead in several areas of home computing. If they don’t, it’s a vaporware viral video.
Internet Explorer is dying. Firefox, Chrome, Safari, and Opera are taking over. Firefox is used most everywhere the consumer is allowed to install it. If Microsoft was smart, they’d turn IE over to the Open Source public.
It’s hard to compete with innovation, especially concerning Google, Wii, and Apple’s iPhone. Obviously Microsoft recognizes Social Media is important, as is the search engine market, but so far they are treating them as a PR tools. The public will see through that. Cloud computing and web applications are turning the data center and computing into a commodity. The playing field is getting flatter. Microsoft’s biggest advantage in new computing is that they currently dominate the Netbook market. Their biggest threat to this now is a Google Netbook. There is a strong possibility that Google could end up owning the market in the long run (or Apple if they cared enough to complete in it).
Microsoft has the resources to be a leading innovator on many fronts, so you have to ask yourself why do Google, Twitter, Apple, and Facebook seem to dominate most of the future technology change? Because others are creating standardized APIs, allowing connectivity, promoting Open Source, and engaging the public (i.e. “crowd sourcing”). If Microsoft changes the way they engage the public and their product development, they will be a major force. If they continue to do things as they have, they will be slow to change and will only have a small piece of the pie (assuming they survive).