Microsoft Should Build On Its Past, Not Ignore It

This is the Surface Studio

With Satya Nadella at the reins for a few months now, and a major developer presentation under his belt, it seems apparent that Microsoft is going to reinvent itself as a cloud-based, cross-platform software services provider. Like Yahoo without Katie Couric, though with its own search, so sorta like Google, too. Like Facebook without the posts or user data, but kinda like Oracle, with a cadre of captive users, only not really. Similar to Apple, but lacking the dedicated hardware users, though lots of folks love Xbox.

Considering it missed almost completely the evolution of its marketplace — and the transformation of its once hegemonic command of computer OS into an island, albeit a huge one — its new strategy means it’s all but starting from scratch. Hence Nadella calls the company “a challenger brand.” The business media love it.

As a marketer, I wonder if it’s missing the boat by a mistaken understanding of 1) the boat, and 2) said miss.

Windows OS didn’t just keep Microsoft afloat over the years, but was arguably why it existed in the first place (with a knowing nod to spreadsheet software). It was so central to everything that Microsoft once did that the company learned to take its functionality and users for granted, approaching both as tools for its reliable financial enrichment. Successive iterations of Windows were dumped on the marketplace every 18 months or so with no compelling purpose other than Microsoft’s routine need to sell new software. Since much of these purchases were made by OEMs, its expectations were regularly fulfilled.

That’s not to say that it didn’t innovate many improvements in UI, but those benefits were usually overwhelmed by the complexities of system upgrades, updates, and software and hardware compatibility. The problem was that little of this constant change was conceived or presented as being particularly user-friendly or good, and its iterations of OS engendered few fans, certainly not many vociferous ones. Given no compelling reason to change OS — as recently as the poorly communicated migration to its otherwise radically innovative “tiles” in the next-to-latest Windows — people found the periodic announcements more burden than opportunity.

This is nowhere more evident than in the 30% of institutional and individual desktops in the US that still run 12 year-old XP. Microsoft has had to turn to bribing users to give it up, offering them $100 discounts on new software, and to extend its support to some large corporate and government users in anticipation of its discontinuation of help for everyone else next week.

So, while this OS cash machine chugged along and the company experimented with other tangential offerings, the marketplace changed: OS and the activities it enabled emerged apart and beyond Microsoft’s reach, as well as smack dab in the heart of where it had once ruled most overtly (Linux, an then Chrome). Search engines, cloud services, mobile platforms and social communities took center stage, leaving Microsoft bereft of a model that allowed it to deliver or co-own such innovation, let alone ways to profit from it.

Like IBM before it, Microsoft ruled its world, only then neglected to innovate the development and marketing of the platform that gave it such authority. Now, it’s not just walking away from that heritage, but “moving faster to recognize a computing world without Microsoft at its heart,” according to one news report.

The problem is that talk about agnostic software or cloud-based whatever makes about as much sense as building a can-opener factory or pursuing a hydroponics business. There are so many talented and inspired people inside Microsoft that it’s actually quite sad that the company might still miss the ultimate (if not only) opportunity against which it has a historic and perhaps unique pathway to success:

Better OS. Different OS. OS that people need. OS that uses more senses. OS for everyday things. Cars. Refrigerators and lamps. Everything else on the planet.

I’m all for nuance and keeping options open, but I wonder whether this isn’t a time for the company to move past doing what the Silicon Valley wags are telling it to do. Skip the language about being a challenger brand, and instead embrace a big and bold goal that challenges not only our expectations, but those of the company’s rank-and-file employees. Act differently…like really differently. Reject the spreadsheet blather about quadrants of competitors and the glib soundbites that pass for analysis on tech companies, and return to the real-world impact that built the company in the first place. Bet the bank on a Manhattan Project-like deliverable, and focus all available hands on making it a reality.

If Microsoft has all but admitted it lost its chance at leadership on the Internet, it could declare that it will be the OS engine of the nascent Internet of Things.

The world doesn’t need a Microsoft that tries to do what its competitors do, no matter how expertly or earnestly. It needs a Microsoft that finally stops taking its past for granted, and upon it builds its future.

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