When it was announced last week that Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer would step down, my take was probably similar to many of yours: It was a necessary step for the company. Microsoft has suffered and spent greatly to push itself ahead of the frontiers of the new computing models smart phones and tablets on the client, and the cloud on the back end. But for all the effort and expenditure, it still remains an outsider, rather than a player, watching the front lines moving farther away.
What is peculiar and, as I'll explain later, somewhat ironic is that the company's technologies in phones and on the cloud are generally well liked by their users. Buyers of Nokia smart phones with Windows Phone on them like the software. The Win 8 look and feel that does so poorly on laptops is a delight on phones. Likewise, enterprise users of Windows Azure praise the offering and have lauded the company for the clean implementation, the support for non-Microsoft products, and the general stability of the platform. I see no such enthusiasm for, say, Google App Engine.
These Redmond technologies remind me in some ways of the Microsoft Zune, which did not enjoy great sales, but very definitely was loved and admired by buyers of the device. I was one of them. Even though I was given an iPod, the Zune always worked well, had better features, and (to me) a preferable interface.
Much of Microsoft is now in that same box: Putting aside Windows 8, the company ships good technology that is appreciated by too small a group of users. The common wisdom in business is that such situations are marketing problems. And this is the irony; namely, that Microsoft was often accused in its early years of winning with inferior technology due to its ability to out-market and out-spend competitors. Now, it has the technology, but can't get the marketing right.
As I said, that's if we ignore Windows 8. Who knows what to make of Windows 8 and how Microsoft should move forward with it? However, as I've mentioned in previous editorials, I admire the company for making a bold bet in a world where most other companies make small bets and rarely with their core franchise.
It would be foolhardy, I believe, to follow the herd thinking that Microsoft is an old unimaginative behemoth, incapable of understanding the new generations' needs or computing preferences. The situation is more complicated than such glib analysis suggests. First of all, I posit that almost no companies today understand the preferences of the younger generations. If anyone should be able to read the tea leaves, you'd think it would be Facebook. Recall their latest new venture, the Facebook phone?
How about Google? Put aside the search engine and Android, and not many great forward-looking innovations have come out that show an understanding of the way forward. Certainly, it was not Google+ or its forebear, Google Wave. Let's not get into Yahoo's problems, which the visionary ex-Goolger Marissa Mayer has yet to address effectively.
If we turn to enterprise needs, IBM, HP, and Dell have all announced disappointing results in the last year. None of them is showing any deeper understanding of IT needs than Microsoft. So, while it's true that Ballmer's successor needs to be a visionary and a great manager, that's probably true, too, of all the major players today: HP, Dell, Google, Facebook, and to a lesser extent, even Apple.
At no other time in the history of computing has the way forward been so unclear and so ill-defined. Huge forces are at work reshaping standard industry technologies, and we can, as consumers, only do what we do best observe, assess, and participate where it makes sense. I have great sympathy for companies of the established order, which must ride these tides to calmer waters. All of us depend on them to one extent or another and should wish them visionary leadership, so that we might all understand and benefit.