Five Free Tips for Microsoft’s Board

| The Back Page

I've had enough. I've flat out just had enough. Microsoft has been stumbling from one disaster to another since Bill Gates stepped aside as CEO, and it's time for the company's board of directors to make some changes.

Being the handy-dandy-armchair-quarterback that is part of my job, I thought I'd put together some tips for that board, and I'm doing so free of charge. Let it be known that I am as magnanimous as I am humble.

1 - A Keyboard?

We all know what a stunning success the iPad has been. The darn thing has completely upset the PC apple cart (see what I did there?), and it rewrote a ton of rules in the process.

I know you're freaked out by that, Microsoft, and I know that you feel you have to be as reactionary to Apple's tablet phenom as you are to everything else that other companies do first. I can't help but notice, however, that you think that your years-late response's best feature is a detachable keyboard.

So, listen: if you look at the success of the iPad and your takeaway is that what everybody really wants is a keyboard, you're doing it wrong. All wrong. In fact, you should fire everyone involved in that decision except the man or woman who was brave enough to say "Ummm...this is &@^#%."

You should promote them.

2 - Who's Your Market?

I have a simple question: what's your target market in these Surface commercials? I ask because I find most Surface ads confusing. "The Movement," the first big one, and "Surface Vibe" (both embedded at the bottom of this column) focus on dancing.

Young people dancing.

Why? The first commercial was bad enough, but Surface Vibe is just stupid. You've got all these young people in a large company setting dancing. So is this ad aimed at business folks? if so, do you think that business people are going to identify with this young man?

Microsoft Surface Ad

Business Folk Gettin' Down with Surface

The kid wears a suit as well as I wear skinny jeans. More importantly, he doesn't even come close to fitting the setting. Business people won't like him, while young people know better than to think this guy could actually be in the business world.

And while I'm at it, there's some sloppy, sloppy editing in this commercial. It's nitpicking, but it just screams at me every time I see this piece of crap commercial.

The first example is a woman who's sitting against the wall in one shot and in the next shot she's sitting at the table. Continuity folks, it's a thing.

The second instance is more egregious (to me). We have one guy doing these amazing spins on top of the big huge conference table. We cut from that exhibition to the main guy coming out of a spin. It's cut like it's supposed to be contiguous, but it's clearly different people wearing different clothes.

Surface Ad

One Does Not Lead to the Other

It's just sloppy, and it shows a lack of respect for your audience.

So while your firing people, Microsoft's board, fire the ad agency that envisioned this campaign and produced the video, and fire the people who greenlighted it at your company.

3 - Angry Schoolgirls

What is up with those angry, angry schoolgirls in "The Movement" commercial? I mean, they're angry.

Surface Ad

From Microsoft's "The Movement" Surface Commercial

Why are they so mad? Is it because they're being forced to use Surface tablii? Or maybe because they're having to dance in a Surface commercial? I'd be mad, too.

Seriously, I don't get the point of this imagery. It's confusing. Above and beyond the weirdness of the dancing as mentioned above, how do these angry children convey anything useful about the Surface?

They don't.

The funny thing is that the only good Windows 8 commercial is the Sony "Express Yourself" commercial with the little girl painting the picture of her dad on the big huge Sony tablet.

4 - Windows 8 & The Interface Formerly Known as Metro

Let's get to the heart of things. Windows 8 is a catastrophe. After Windows 7 largely made up for the Vista abomination, Microsoft stumbled on to Windows 8, and this is a big problem.

The people in charge at Microsoft confused their desire to keep Windows relevant in a world of tablets with the way consumers want to actually use those tablets. Coming back to the keyboard lesson above, anyone who would look at the iPad and come away with the notion that people really want their tablets to be desktops and their desktops to be tablets should not be trusted to make decisions.

Microsoft is a company that has always run scared. Always. Even when it was on top. When Bill Gates was in charge, that fright was expressed as ruthless business decisions and a laser focus on products. But Bill gates is a combination product guy and strategist, and that combination really worked for Microsoft (if not for us, the consumer).

Today, Microsoft is run by Steve Ballmer, a marketing guy with no product vision. And when that marketing guy started running scared of tablets, the resulting product, Windows 8, got it all wrong. It tries to offer a tablet experience by keeping one foot firmly cemented in the world of desktop computing, and that's just plain stupid.

Apple showed quite clearly that people would embrace tablets that offer an experience that is designed for tablets, that allow them to consume content in a way that is uniquely tablet in nature.

Microsoft's takeaway? Make a tablet with no apps and another tablet with that runs Windows software. Marry both of them to a keyboard and a stylus, and saddle the desktop version of Windows with the tablet interface, too.

It's just all wrong, every step of the way.

5 - Steve Ballmer Has Got to Go

Do you remember when Steve Jobs talked about how bad it is to put a marketing guy or a bean counter in charge of a product company? Ignoring the fact that he then put an operations guy in charge of his own company, he was right.

Microsoft needs a product guy with vision, and that means Steve Ballmer has got to go. Bless his heart, he has to go. I know he loves Microsoft and would do anything for the company, but in my opinion, the best thing he could do would be help his company's board of directors find a replacement and ensure a stable transition. If you don't, you're going to have something like this on your hands.

Jon Rubenstein, for instance. He could be great for Microsoft. Scott Forstall? Now that would be interesting, but we'll save that for another column.

But put a product guy in charge of your company, someone with vision, and do it soon. I know your company is making plenty of money, but things are only going to get worse unless you are content earning patent royalties on sales of Android devices.

The two commercials in their entirety (for extra irony, the multimedia technology that never took off, Silverlight,  is required):

Comments

geoduck

I agree that Ballmer has been an utter disaster for MS, but it would be absurd to let the man that has managed to screw up every single thing he touched have anything to do with selecting his successor.

I love the irony of needing another failed product to see the ads for currently failing products. Silverlight? I haven’t installed it in, well, I can’t remember. Only uninstalls.

Bill

Brian,
The problem with the Sony commercial is that it is supposedly showing off what great things the Surface can do for painting.  While it is a child, why in the world would an adult be impressed by the paintings the software produced.  They look no better than what can be done with paint and paper.  Now, give that child, or adult Papers 53 on the iPad and it is a whole different story.  Papers 53 allows one to do things with a watercolor-esque interface that allows you to make mistakes and undo the mistakes.  It one of the best apps I have for the iPad.

Bryan Chaffin

Great points, Bill.

geoduck, your criticism of my Ballmer transition suggestion is certainly fair. I am perhaps giving too much weight to just how much Mr. Ballmer loves Microsoft when the reality is that he doesn’t love it enough to let it go.

1stplacemacuser

The commercials are well choreographed, but I don’t understand what they’re trying to say. I like the dance actions. I just don’t know what features and capabilities of the Surface, Surface Pro are so neat that I need them over an iPad.

The problem with being the second player in a market is that you’re always compared to the front runner, the first into that market. You need to explain it in terms of the front runner and why you’re better than the front runner. The front runner, when introducing people to the market, can get away with explaining anything. People don’t know what that market is then.

Bosco (Brad Hutchings)

Do you remember when Steve Jobs talked about how bad it is to put a marketing guy or a bean counter in charge of a product company? Ignoring the fact that he then put an operations guy in charge of his own company, he was right.

Just wow. And so it begins.

Bryan Chaffin

It doesn’t begin with me, Brad, I just thought the point needed to be acknowledged. I’m Tim’s biggest fan. smile

I should have also noted that Steve specifically criticized bean counters and marketing guys in charge of product companies. He didn’t mention ops, but I didn’t want to go to deep into that rabbit hole since it was tangential to the column.

jsk

Balmer may be incompetent, but he’s no fool. In case you haven’t noticed, he’s been purging MS of his potential rivals over the last year or so. Now, if you’re on MS’s board, who’s left to fill Balmer’s seat if you fire him?

Never mind. In our MBAnus filled world, any manager will do. After all, they’re just selling “product.” wink

My take on those stupid commercials: Surfaces are noisy to operate, REQUIRE a desk and keyboard to use, and are covered in some kind of hallucinogen that causes involuntary muscle convulsions.

Bosco (Brad Hutchings)

I thought it was an obvious point when Jobs was still alive and still CEO and the exec team pictures showed a whole bunch of smiling fools with two serious men (Jobs and Ive) interspersed. What can I say other than game recognizes game?

For real though, the investors have their pitchforks at the ready and are looking for an excuse. That’s very clear. This could shape up to be one hell of a week.

Bosco (Brad Hutchings)

P.S. Easiest, safest transition from Cook’s leadership… He acknowledges that Apple needs a different kind of cat at the helm and steps back to take over some piece of the business that is floundering, keeps his board seat, maybe becomes chairman and moves Art over a seat.

mhikl

Nuts to being humble. This is down right taking charge of the arena and that is a good thing, Bryan. But I did read somewhere that MS made great profits this past year, but what if that is why the bald dude is kept round. But what if this is only treading off the assets. But what if that is all MS has left to do? So many buts until Bry steps into the ring, bare chested, sans gloves sporting a kilt, affixed with goatee after a quick role in the mud to make junk meal of that mealy company and its disingenuous leader. What a energising thought, such a satisfying sight.

The commercials explained; Wonderful! I’ve given ‘em nary a glance much less a thought, they are sooooo irritating, so redundant, so incipient, so so so ugly and there is enough ugly in this world without fat boy rubbing our faces in it. The only thing uglier would be Ballmer jumping onto the table attempting a hearty pirouette. The man has a style all his own and the less we see of that the healthier our eye balls will be and up in serious MS will seem.

Good article. This could be a series.

Rick Roberts

Smart column, but Christ, I lose my mind when I read that stupid phrase “going forward”! It adds nothing! Just leave it out, and your sentence means the same thing. Where do you all go to learn these stupid biz-speak phrases?

Please, please, please just stop using it. Will you try?

MacFrogger

Well, rather than clutter my computer with un-needed software (Silverlight), I went over to YouTube to catch the “Movement” commercial. It had been a while since I’d last seen it.

I didn’t notice it when I saw these commercials a while back, but then it struck me - the dude starring in the commercial looks more than a bit like Justin Long!  Same hairdo and same facial structure, and…egads, is MS still smarting from the old “I’m a Mac/I’m a PC” ad campaign?  But like all such MS attempts to copy Apple’s past, they overdo it and the whole thing (choreography included) comes off to me as trying to appear too hip for their own good!

Neil Anderson

These ads were repurposed after Zune was killed.

furbies

Is MS so afraid of actually comparing a Surface to the iPad in term of usability that it (MS) would rather do a series of annoyingly painful to watch ads of idiots flailing about, instead of a series of ads that tout the a Surface in action ?

Bryan Chaffin

My apologies for wrecking your day, if not your entire week, with my reckless use of a pleonasm, Rick. The offending words have been excised, and I hope the piece now measures up to your expectations.

John Dingler, artist

Hi Brad,
Loved the emotion in the article.

The dancing teens were likely approved by the Monkey Dancer. Think of them as a dozen mini mes, Ballmer getting in touch with his inner little girl.

“Incipient?” Maybe, but more likely “insipid.”

Yeah, why install Silverlight. Stick a fork in it.

And “going forward,” a cliche that sounds strong and meaningful, macho-like.

If this article winds up aiding MS to mend its ways, at the expense of Apple, I will remember your aid.

wab95

Bryan:

I agree with everything you’ve said above, but from a business strategy development perspective, I would take a step further back; an exercise that I’ve had to do with colleagues in medicine and science, two industries whose practitioners have been noted for poor business acumen.

If I had MS’s board, or even just Ballmer and his senior management team, in a room, I would ask them three questions:

1) What business are you in?

2) How has that business changed in the past 5 years? (Extra points if you can identify the effect modifiers i.e. forces or agents of that change).

3) Where will your business be in 5 years? (This often results in discussions around two other questions: a) Is that where you want to be? b) What do you need to do to either expedite or prevent that?

Once there is consensus on these three questions (along with their supplements), which can take awhile to achieve and often exposes fault lines within leadership ranks that are both diagnostic and prognostic (if not corrected) that explain a group’s current malaise. As discouraging as this may be, it is the first and essential step in fixing the problem and restoring health.

The second step would be to ask them to identify their core strengths (competencies) and assets, and how these can be used to achieve their target 5 year objective.

The third step would be to ask them to identify what essential competencies and assets are missing, and how they might go about achieving these in order to achieve that target.

As simple as these three steps might sound, they are often overlooked by some of the world’s very smartest and otherwise accomplished people, particularly when they feel under siege and under pressure to deliver results in the urgent present.

While I have my own answers to the above questions, it is further informative to see how one’s own a priori opinions are modified by input from a group’s leadership, particularly if there are glaring deficits, and your objective is not to discourage, but to provide a best set of recommendations for a realistically successful future.

xmattingly

Regarding #4: I believe that the tablet conundrum is frankly a problem with Microsoft’s DNA… the inherent issue is attempting to be everything to everyone, as opposed to parsing a product down to its most fundamental usage/usability. That kind of discipline has gotten to be crucial with mobile devices, and MS has failed miserably; particularly with the Surface. They have ALWAYS had that problem, even a decade ago with the previous generation toaster fridge tablet.

Lee Dronick

The videos played fine on my iPad. Does iOS support Silverlight or did they serve up a different format?

Peter Lyte

Brian,
After watching the commercials again for the 1st time on my MacBook Air (I do have Silverlight installed) I came away with the following:
1. The commercials are hard not to watch in a creepy way. All those target demographic customers dancing away with intense expressions on their faces.
2. I wonder if the ad agency that created the Twix commercials (Twix bars being broken with a “snapping” sound) was hired to create these & what has it to do with selling computers?
3. One of the previous comments mentions Justin Long but I lean towards a subtle resemblance to a young Steve Jobs. A subtle dig showing Jobs dancing with the “Lemmings” in a synchronized M$ world? In M$ dreams.

Log-in to comment