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After Ballmer, What?

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.

— Andrew Binstock
Editor in Chief
Twitter: platypusguy

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Microsoft got to its dominant position through a lot of illegal anti-competitive practices. By the time it was forced to abandon those practices, it had solidified its position, and there were no viable competitors. Now that they have viable competition from Apple and Google, they're failing.

Microsoft desperately needs a major culture change. A new CEO *if they pick the right one,* is a start. The new CEO has to understand that you need to find a strategy that's right for Microsoft. Reorganizing yourself to be just like Apple is adorable, but not the right strategy. Apple doesn't have to contend with the constraints imposed by an enterprise market that only wants incremental change.

I'd get rid of stack ranking immediately. You've got to get people focused on being good and not just looking good. As it stands, Microsoft employees spend an inordinate amount of time trying to cover their cabooses. That's energy better spent building products that solve real problems.

You can't attack the consumer space with the same technology that works well in the enterprise. They have different priorities. Trying to satisfy both means you succeed at neither.

Microsoft is in a unique position to interface the consumer/mobile technologies to the enterprise. But, it will need a more open attitude than they've displayed so far.

Let your employees show up to work with iPads and iPhones. Make them work in your organization, and you can sell that technology to your existing customers.

Whether any of this will come to pass depends on the Microsoft board, and they haven't produced much to be encouraged about. Balmer should have retired a few years ago. They acquiesced to the status quo, and now Microsofts prospects are nowhere near as favorable as they should be. .


3% liking Windows Phone OS does not mean 97% "hate" it.
You're making up the last bit about Azure and most of what you write about Azure is nonsense. Azure can run pretty much anything you could run on a server. There's no lock-in. Want to run Linux on Azure? Go right ahead. MS officially supports multiple distros.


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.

I think you have hit the problem on the head right there - the majority of the 3% of smartphone buyers who buy Windows Phone probably do like it and think it looks good, otherwise why would they have bought it - it is a bit like observing Catholics like the Pope. The problem is the 97% who hate the Windows Phone OS and its look and feel.

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.

Enterprise users - or any other kinds of users don't really know or care about Azure or Google App Engine, they just care about the apps, and there is a shortage of cloud apps from Azure. There is also the added complication of the Microsoft lock-in culture. Developers prefer not to locked into another vendors products for obvious reasons, but this pervades Microsoft's core thinking, and Ballmers "One Microsoft" push is just the latest manifestation of this mentality. Unfortunately while this may help stop new entrants into an entrenched monopoly, but it doesn't work when you don't have an entrenched monopoly - which is the case in tablets and smartphones.


I can't tell if you're willfully misunderstanding. How else would you talk about products other than the search engine and Android?


"How about Google? Put aside the search engine and Android"

You can't "put aside" the two massive products that are driving Google's dominance and still have a coherent argument.


I used to have a Windows Mobile phone. It was such a horrifically painful experience that I swore never to get a phone from Microsoft again. Windows Phone is of course completely different... and I have heard good things about it... but I'm sticking to my earlier promise. Once bitten, twice shy. I know Microsoft made at least one terrible, terrible phone OS. I see zero reason to take a gamble on the new MS phone OS, when I am already perfectly happy with Android. Why on earth would I change?
Microsoft are simply reaping what they have sown - you can't spend decades shafting consumers, then say "hey, you guys, why aren't you buying our stuff any more, we finally have good tech now!" and expect anyone to pay any attention at all.
On a slightly different subject: "putting aside Windows 8" made me chuckle. It's Microsoft, you can't put Windows aside (though I know you did address that, a bit further on). And Win8 is a total failure - a UI designed for phones on an OS for the desktop? You don't need to be a visionary to see that's not going to work. It's fine to respect them for trying something new, but when that "something new" makes my PC less usable than it was before for no benefit...? Yeah, don't think I'll bother thanks.


MS Office doesn't really have commercial competitors. MS even provides the productivity apps on the Mac. The open source LibreOffice is perhaps the only genuine competitor, but it has minuscule market share. In sum, I don't think Office's pricing is contributing to the problems at MS.


You are right that programmers sometimes jump on the latest fad, but I'll state that fad does not equal innovation. But on the other hand sometimes innovation is equated with fad.

I'd say programmers are more resistant to fads, but managers are not. Managers too often want to use flaw charts, structure diagrams, and UML, failing to realise that this really is what HLLs are all about (which C was a step back from).

One area where programmers were resistant to innovation was in type systems. The C world put this around as being 'training wheels' rather than a fundamental technique for ensuring program correctness. We have not even reached the structured programming vision of 50 years ago, This is bad. But I'm also not saying that resistance to fads is a bad thing, just too often fad and innovation are not correctly distinguished.

Computing evolves rather quickly - that's the philosophy of software rather than hardware. We should not necessarily stop this innovation. Remember MS originally publicly disparaged Apple's GUIs while privately embracing it for the takeover. Computing people (I'll include programmers with IT management in this case) went along with this and thus resisted innovation.

Note how Ballmer tried the same disparaging tactic with the iPhone, but he had lost the audience. Apple has shown that innovation + quality can win.


"Programmers are particularly resistant to innovation - they don't want
to have to keep learning new technologies (C is still dominant)."

In my experience, this statement is blatantly false or, at least, confused. For one thing newer is not always better. (There are good reasons why "C is still dominant" in many areas.) Newer technologies are not necessarily innovative. Innovation has more to do with new, more effective use of existing technology or refinement rather than replacement. On the other hand, I've met many programmers that eagerly jump to the next new thing, time after time, leaving in their wake half baked "innovations" that become a huge problem for ongoing development and support; a "tower of Babel" of mixed languages and technologies that resemble a house of cards more than a well engineered system. Microsoft's development technologies and those of the Java Community have been prime examples of all-or-nothing "innovations" that don't don't fit well with development tools and technologies (like C and C++) that aren't dominated by one corporation or industry group.


This is down to the two major philosophy streams in computing. The first is that computers are systems to control people - the business model which was the realm of IBM and then Microsoft. If you judge success by profitability, it's very profitable. The opposite philosophy is that computers are tools for people. This came out of Stanford and Doug Englebart to Jef Raskin and Apple and PARC. (The third is via John McCarthy and AI where computers would replace people.)

The second philosophy has been innovative and able to move the frontiers of computing, but this has been resented and detested by those in the first camp who in particular vehemently disparage Apple (before that it was Burroughs). Programmers are particularly resistant to innovation - they don't want to have to keep learning new technologies (C is still dominant).
IBM did good things with relational DBs and MS with transaction and distributed processing (Andrew Herbert is chief of MS at Cambridge), but we now know that the world of computing is far wider than just IT.

Is Ballmer the cause or the symptom of what happens at Microsoft? Either way a lot of people aren't unhappy that he is going. Gates was far more visionary, but Jobs was much further in front and had the arrows in the back from those in the first camp to prove it.


Microsoft was as the US Government might be, if someone came up with a way to pay off the deficit and the debt, but the income tax had to go. Hard choice.
Protecting Desktop Windows was the priority. If mobile devices can do that, no one has shown how.


Thank you. This is the most even-handed assessment of Microsoft that I've read for some time.


I think Microsoft is pricing their products so high that people cannot afford them. What is the difference in price between Office and it's competitors? What advantage is there to Office? Larger file sizes, slower load times? At some point they are going to have to realize that they can't keep pushing the prices of their products up.


Microsoft spent years constructing an interdependent ecosystem. Users have historically been all in, or all out. Fortune 1000 companies were all in, using Microsoft products even when they were inferior. Silicon Valley was all out, avoiding Microsoft products even when they were superior.

That strategy worked well as long as the Microsoft ecosystem was ubiquitous. I think the shift began during the dot-com boom. I was at a dot-com, with an ex-Microsoft CEO. We had good Microsoft support, but the developers were mixed in their loyalties. (This was Minneapolis, with pro-Unix academics, ex-Cray Unix supporters, and the rest were a mix of backgrounds.) When it came to selling our software, we'd sell to anyone. But when it came to deploying on hardware we paid for, everyone balked at Microsoft's prices for server licenses, when Linux could run C and Java just as well. What if we suddenly needed to double our server capacity? The hardware was cheap, but the server licenses could kill us.

Open source software has a major advantage for small companies and startups: because it's free, it's flexible. If you need another box, you add another box without worrying about licensing. If your server dies or is crushed under a surge of traffic at 10:00am, and you need to be running again before noon, you can rip out a desktop and force it into service while you wait for a new server to arrive.

And most cloud businesses are built on the same assumption of low per-box cost and rapid deployment that run counter to Microsoft's model.

I've heard good things about C# and .NET over the years, but they run into that same problem. If you're already on Microsoft, it makes sense. But it's not enough better than Java on Linux to make me consider switching.

Lately I've been using one Microsoft product, and (outside of test VMs) it's the only Microsoft software I've touched in the last decade. TypeScript. It's no coincidence that it's built on open-source Node.js, which uses Google's V8 JavaScript JIT. It's the first Microsoft product that actually feels like it fits in a non-Microsoft environment.


I loved my windows phone while I had it. (Recently went android for various reasons), and like you I've heard good reviews of the zune 'back in the day'.
But as a dev and as a user (phone, gamer, home pc user) my vibe with MS has been going downhill- ironically a lot of it is the marketing. None of it seems to be directed 'at' me. Makes me wonder who it is directed at, and why it isn't working on those people.