How to Turn Microsoft Around: A Primer, Part 1

Rob Enderle

One of the first things I read this morning as I opened my eyes to face the first week of 2010 was a piece in InformationWeek on the seven things Microsoft Must Do in 2010. Each was a good idea, but each -- and this isn't unusual -- addressed symptoms of an undisclosed core problem and didn't try to determine if there was a central cause for the mistakes, assuming they are mistakes, in the first place.


I'm calling this post a primer because while this should likely be a book, I'm going to cover the issues in blog form, so it will be light and relatively quick. This piece dovetails somewhat with my final post for 2009, dealing with Apple, Google and Microsoft CEOs.


Avoiding the Whack-a-Mole Approach


Going after the symptoms isn't unusual. Often, a new chief executive comes in and plays a few years of whack-a-mole, pounding on highly visible problems, then either sells the company, stabilizes it or gets replaced. Rarely does he or she ever restore the company to the greatness it once enjoyed. To do that, you have to put your mole-whacking stick down and take time to study the company for a while. Few are given this kind of time and those that are generally focus, like our fictional whack-a-mole CEO, on the more topical moles. Whacking moles also tends to be less effort and much more fun.


Since I'd like this decade to be a bit different, I'm going to approach this topic in another way. Instead of whacking moles, let's instead see what's getting them to pop up out of their holes in the first place.


Microsoft, the Good Years: Defined Customers


If we were trying to analyze a problem in a car or a person, it would be good to look back at when it was working well, compare that to what is going on now, and see what changes are degrading performance.


Microsoft seemed to peak in 1995. Its big break was when IBM licensed DOS for a pittance and Microsoft helped create the PC OEMs that today make up the majority of PC sales. The customers were well defined (they were these original equipment manufacturers that had effectively outsourced software to Microsoft). A side lesson was learned by IBM, in that by buying DOS so cheaply, IBM devolved from Microsoft's most important to least important partner, setting the groundwork for their eventual breakup. (I wonder if IBM retains this lesson.)


This OEM relationship made Microsoft the vendor and the OEMs the customer, with clearly defined roles and little conflict. Microsoft Office was, particularly with the peak 1995 launch, subordinated to Windows, and even though Office often was sold directly to companies and consumers, it was seen as a PC enhancement, strengthening the OEM/Microsoft bonds. PC turnover went from eight to 10 years to two to three years over the '90s, and this was a lucrative market for everyone.

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Jan 4, 2010 6:02 PM a. asdf a. asdf  says:

I think the number one issue at Microsoft is that they either don't use their own products on a daily basis, or they use Microsoft software differently from everyone else on the planet.

For example, what would compel them to put 2 selectable power plans on the Windows 7 taskbar when it was 3 power plans in Vista? People have been used to 3 power plans and set up their usage habits accordingly, why would they change this? Or putting the docking options in the Windows 7 tablet input panel 2 levels deep, when it was just 1 level deep on Vista. And I have yet to see anyone who is pleased with the Office ribbon interface.

With each iteration, Microsoft software becomes more unusable. In IE6, I used to be able to set up menus and browser button locations any way I pleased, it all changed in IE7, IE8. Now they are all locked. So now I just use FF, and can move toolbars and buttons anywhere. And the security zones in IE are unusable since there is no way for me to see which subdomains are being blocked and which need permission. So, now I just use FF with Noscript.

It's not just UI changes either, core OS issues like Superfetch and ReadyBoost are another symptom of this. There are no justifications for these services. All they do is stress computer hardware, use up battery/electricity with very little performance improvements.

If Microsoft doesn't even understand how to effectively manage the UI of their software, understand that their core software features are way behind free products on the market, or understand that useless services slows down their OS, things like customer/vendor confusion are moot. This is very evident in Microsoft products like Vista, IE7, IE8, and Windows Mobile, which all have lost market share to some extend or another.

Jan 6, 2010 1:07 PM Rob Enderle Rob Enderle  says: in response to a. asdf

I think this still comes down to not knowing who they are building for.   Each change often comes from some internal or external source but because these sources are different the result seems whacked to all of them.  

Jan 6, 2010 2:45 PM a. asdf a. asdf  says: in response to Rob Enderle

Even if Microsoft can't figure out if it's software is intended for the 60 year old computer beginner or the 15 year old computer whiz, I don't see the reasoning behind random UI changes with each Windows release. Or why a core feature of Microsoft's flagship product (IE security zones) still not working properly when comparable free Firefox plugins do the job better and are easier to use.

Jan 6, 2010 3:31 PM Rob Enderle Rob Enderle  says: in response to a. asdf

Changes appear random because the justification behind those changes isn't consistently sourced. That's a customer focus problem.  And we are talking a customer range not of age or sex but of type and title.  From users, to IT professionals, to vendors, to retailers, to regulators.  Nothing consistent there.

Jan 6, 2010 5:50 PM a. asdf a. asdf  says: in response to Rob Enderle

Who's wants these UI changes? I'm pretty sure no IT professional wants these changes. The last thing he needs is calls from 50 people asking how to change a setting to something because he can't find it on the new Windows OS. The same goes for vendors, retailers, OEM's. They would have to retrain all their support staff and have to deal with increased tech support calls. And I don't think regulators would impose that all taskbar icons to have double click action removed starting with Vista.

Jan 6, 2010 5:53 PM Rob Enderle Rob Enderle  says: in response to a. asdf

I'm not saying IT did, they would have liked it if we'd stayed with DOS.  IT is about as anti-change as you get.  But the change could have been driven from an OEM, partner or someone inside Microsoft.  When you don't define the customer you can't prioritize changes and the loudest voice tends to get the attention.  Someone drove this change, that someone is likely happy with it, that someone was likely not the right someone. 


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