If you’re looking for someone to give you insight into Microsoft, the last person you’d normally want to talk to is a Mac zealot. They’re unreliable witnesses, their eyesight warped by years of animosity. John Gruber, though, appears to be an exception. The voice behind the popular Mac site Daring Fireball, Gruber has just published one of the better essays I’ve read on Microsoft’s current situation, and it’s one of the most elegantly written as well.
Microsoft, Gruber argues, is only truly alive when it’s in a fierce fight with a competitor. The company “defines itself by its rivalries. They relegated early PC peers like WordPerfect, Lotus, and Borland to relative obscurity; then, famously, they outright obliterated Netscape.” But today Microsoft doesn’t have a strong, direct competitor. It’s trying to position Google as its foe, but Google isn’t cooperating. Despite endless speculation, Google shows little interest in launching a product, whether it’s an operating system or a suite of office programs, that will compete head-on with Microsoft’s core products.
So where does that leave Microsoft? At the moment, Gruber writes, the company’s “most formidable competitor … is itself.” To succeed, Microsoft’s new products have to displace not another company’s products but the old versions of its own products. Microsoft is literally fighting itself. And so we have, writes Gruber,
the much-maligned ads in which Microsoft casts their own users as dinosaurs simply because they haven’t upgraded to the latest version of Office. Most of the criticism of these ads revolves around the fact that it’s a bad idea to insult your own customers. But what I found interesting about them is the tacit acknowledgment that Microsoft’s strongest competitor in today’s office software market isn’t OpenOffice, or any other competing suite from another company, but rather the Microsoft of a decade ago.
This situation, argues Gruber, is creating a crisis of confidence within Microsoft. Having no great enemy to vanguish, the company is becoming timid and bureaucratic. It’s “turning into a company that values management decisions that increase complexity over design decisions that increase clarity.”
The smartest thing that a Microsoft rival like Apple or Google can do, implies Gruber, is to refuse to be a Microsoft rival – to compete at a slant. rather than directly, with Microsoft’s products. As long as Microsoft’s greatest enemy is itself, most of the company’s legendary ferocity will be directed inward rather than outward. And for a company, as for a person, that’s a recipe for malaise, if not worse.