What Ever Happened to Microsoft?

In the spring of 2012, there’s a lot of talk about Apple, Google, smartphones, Facebook and the iPad. Yet, quietly, Microsoft plods along with MS Office and Windows 8 in a Post-PC era. What’s Microsoft really up to these days? Where are they going?

I’ve been curious lately about Microsoft. Here at TMO, the focus is Apple or things that impact Apple. Of course, as Apple has grown and its product line has expanded, it has many more new competitors, and so we talk about them too. What about Microsoft as an Apple competitor? Along the way, as we inch into the Post-PC era, Microsoft seems to have dropped off our radar.

Windows 8

Patience is a Business Virtue?

From what I’ve been reading, Microsoft’s new strategy is patience. The company realizes that it has a very small, single digit share of the smartphone market. It was completely blindsided by the iPad. Well, except for the Courier project, which looked great, but was killed because it would undermine Windows. 

Microsoft’s new strategy is that they have the entire future ahead of them, time to rethink everything, calmly plan for the long term, and hope that a new strategy of Windows 8 across multiple platforms will bring a sense of coherence. One article added, “The secret sauce, which features a dash of Bing and SkyDrive, is still simmering.”

The notion by the Windows camp is that Microsoft has one chance to get it right, and the only hope, Obi Wan, is to plan for an ecosystem anchored by Windows 8 and a common user experience.

Mix and Match

That common experience is what intrigues me. It’s Microsoft’s new vision. Basically, the Microsoft experts are saying that the company is tying its future to the idea that no matter what platform you’re on, Xbox, desktop, tablet or phone, you’ll see a very similar UI. No only does that reduce costs, but it reduces the customer learning curve and reduces the severity of the Post-PC era. Clever.

Even Apple is trying to achieve that to some extent. One example is Lion’s Launchpad, an app that more or less mimics the iPad home page. But Apple’s heart doesn’t seem to be in it. Nor ours.

The problem, as I see it, is that different sized devices with different hardware capabilities and different work flows demand concessions to the UI. A tablet or phone needs a small array of app icons so you can just touch one to launch it. We don’t touch our Lion displays, so launching can take varied forms. It gets much more complicated from there.

Also, the limited power of battery powered devices dictates that you don’t have the processor speed to enable the fabulous graphics available on the desktop. The OS engineer is faced with cramming a full-featured OS into a tablet or dumbing down the desktop to match.

The Big Factors Loom

For Microsoft, it’s not just a matter of technology. It’s also a matter of execution and urgency. With 200,000 iPad native apps and a total of 600,000 that can run in the iPhone mode, plus all the hundreds of thousands of Android apps, Microsoft is fooling itself if it thinks that droves of exhausted developers now have the bandwidth to jump on a third Windows 8 tablet bandwagon. That’s another reason, however, why Windows 8 has to be similar across devices — ease of entry into the Microsoft ecosystem.

Microsoft also has to execute in a crisper, more determined fashion than ever before. Over the years, we’ve seen how Steve Ballmer hasn’t been able to corral and unite a disparate collection of ruggedly independent, turf protecting executives. That infighting was, apparently, what did Courier in. Meanwhile, at Apple, there was an ultra-strong, dictatorial visionary who brought all his executives onto the same page. In that regard, patience isn’t a virtue for Microsoft executives who get too much time to ponder their own fate instead of the company’s.

We haven’t heard a lot from Microsoft lately. Their historical hutzpah has been tempered by the ominous scope of the future task at hand. All of us will be watching with great interest to see how the company reinvents itself and whether this strategy of patience is wisdom born of desperation or corporate delusion.