Microsoft vs. Microsoft

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.

4 thoughts on “Microsoft vs. Microsoft

  1. Joe McK

    Not to worry. Microsoft’s biggest competitor is a $100-billion company that has dominated computing since day one.

    In January, Bill Gates himself said as much. In a Reuters interview, he said he doesn’t worry about Google but about IBM. “The biggest company in the computer industry, by far, is IBM. They have the four times the employees that I have, way more revenues than I have. IBM has always been our biggest competitor.”

    IBM now actively funds and supports Linux, Eclipse and other open-source initiatives, which cut right into Microsoft’s most important markets.

    -Joe McKendrick

  2. _oh

    Scribbled this together having read your book Nick, I call it:

    Homo Sapiens, History and Tool Making.

    To be honest, we already witness a dazzling array and choice of utilities, programs and tools for the windows platform. But it still doesn’t provide the experience of computing I need. Because, every month it appears to me, everyone is using the latest online mail service, or the latest this or that. It is impossible to get uniformity – and you do lose lots of information and stuff, in transitions from one to another. As Brewster Kahle often points out – the internet still has no memory. Christine Finn, an archaeologist working at the University of Bradford in England, has spent some time looking at the archaeology of the digital world. Working with young kids in schools, kids who understand how fast things become outdated in electronic and digital products. She says, it allows them to understand quickly the aims of archaeology, by understanding the shorter timespans of digital things. Carr reckons that software will become a commodity – that portable and object oriented writing tools like Java, will accelerate the commoditisation of software. Carr argues that software has no natural wear out cycle – that it will just continue forever and ever. I recently listened to an interview with software pioneer Steve Wozniak. Steve said, software seemed great to him, because he could create a control panel, a dash board or whatever mechanism he wished – and the great thing was – it was more durable than mechanical, physical objects, because it was done in software, it didn’t experience wear and tear. But Martin Campbell Kelly also explains in his book about the software industry, that even the best selling software had a life span of maximum ten years. That was even longer than most software firms had hoped for. I don’t buy into the over simplified analysis, that software doesn’t wear out. I do like Wozniak’s observation, that software doesn’t experience wear in the same fashion as an intricate mechanism for telling the time would. But software does wear out eventually in terms of its functionality and place within the world and events that surround it. This is what I mean about archaeology time scales, and their relevance for software history too. It took several thousand years for homo sapiens to change gradually from one form of tool and material usage to another. The old tools persisted out of ignorance, lack of movement of ideas, or perhaps the old tools were ‘good enough’. With software, we have already seen the stone, bronze and iron age in the short space of 50 years. But have we advanced that much?

    PARC Laboratories, rather than Bill Gates I think began with the vision of a computer on every desktop. PARC started that notion, and the office automation concept at a time when hardware was still hugely expensive and rare. Unfortunately, I think, this notion of needing individual computers for each person got out of control. Nicholas G. Carr is right about the waste involved in such a paradigm. Because in a windows world, no two desktop are alike. Each has a slightly different configuration. Sure you can do the XBOX thing and seal the box shut. But, if you read Martin Campbell Kelly’s analysis of game consoles, and particularly about Ninetendo. You will understand something crucial about consoles – that at one stage, the Americans ruled in this department, which Atari and Commodore etc. Then the whole industry collapsed and suddenly Ninetendo realised they had to tighten up standards, in order to keep the industry from melting down again. That is also where Sony are coming from, and possibly where XBOX is coming from. It is not so much about a wish to keep everything seal shut and secretive – but a necessary measure one must take, if one wants to ensure quality and uniformity across your whole console product experience – while still allowing independent developers to make new software products.

    The worst thing I have found in my experience of software – is you as a computer operator do become outdated – fast, I have noticed. I am only using software in my work since the late nineties. I converted from a manual process of designing buildings and architecture, to a digital system. In his book, Nicholas G. Carr observes, that software products do have the best business practices in-built into them. People who buy Siebel customer relationship management software are also buying Siebel’s way of managing customers. This is what becomes out-dated, not the software in my experience. Because software users, in my experience are coaxed into thinking and operating in the way the software wants them to. One learns a certain way to work and then that approach becomes outdated. The only reason for going to update tutorials, is not to learn new software tools at all – but to try and do a refresher course, in new ways of how to conduct your business! So I have noticed, people who are collaborating a lot online, and using the web as a platform – have a very different and contemporary way to do business. Compared that is, to myself and older fellows who began using isolated computers, small workgroups and what not, in the nineties. Suddenly our perception of how to conduct business, a way which looked new and innovative a couple of years ago, is already a dinosaur! It effects me to a degree, but I really feel sorry for guys who began with version 1.0 of the design software. Or worse, guys who have lived through multiple platform changes – it is like having to change your personality, as your (software) working environment demands you to. Every odd couple of years, or business cycles, to be more tech-savy. It is not like the homo sapien are adapting their tools anymore, their tools are adapting them. How sustainable is this, especially in the hostile environment of modern business?

    This washing-machine like feature of the modern workplace, is directly related to software and software alone. It presents people with a world which changes from ice age to temperate, to mediterranean climates, ever couple of business cycles. Long term capital management learned how unpredictable stock markets are to their misfortune. Mandlebrot has written a book about it lately. Just as we need means to look at climate change in the physical world, we will need something to observe changes in the digital world too. Because at present, is not a useful space in which to grow and develop ones character and make a homestead. Much needed talent is leaking out of industries, prematurely and at regular intervals, because they haven’t the wish to keep abreast of change. The luckiest, are probably those who never switched on a computer at all! So I think, this churning of talent, and leakage of talent from industry is something software, as we currently know it, is responsible for – and something which software is going to have to learn to solve, if software wants to play a real part in society and our lives. I think Nicholas G. Carr’s arguments are defined too narrowly, in speaking about the cost of IT infrastructure upgrades. The cost of the leakage of innovative people from industry, is several times more. Because that represents a loss to humanity as a whole. As I have said, no two personal computers are entirely the same. That fact is witnessed, when you have to change desks for a day for some reason – and the first half of your day is merely spent organising the desk, your biros and your computer to suit your needs. That is within the same office! The person whose workplace you have just altered, now has to return to find things are different, and proceeds to spend time re-adjusting everything to suit them. This cycle continues on a daily basis, in workplaces all across the globe. Unlike your talent, your computing environment doesn’t move with you. Maybe when the clothes we wear start to become intelligent this might change. I don’t know. Perhaps the slowness of development of the bronze age, had something going for it after all. You could travel across a whole continent and remain familiar with the tools, dress, habits and ways of life.

    Take the web services model of computing then, what happens when someone changes the central server and effects your desktop or working environment? Like the Sioux nation waiting for a buffalo herd that will never show up. What about that extra 5 minutes you had to spend looking for some icon that has changed its appearance? Yesterday you aimed your spear at a buffalo, today it looks more like a kangeroo and hops along the ground! Homo Sapiens are meant to be versatile, but give me a break. If the road I take to work each day were suddenly closed, I might quickly throw my hands up and say ‘why even bother’. Software providers must be careful they aren’t giving out this message to their consumer base. I stopped posting at an online forum a while back, because something got screwed up with my profile, which locked me out of my own profile. I asked the system admin was I banned for some reason. He said no, but, he didn’t have time to fix it. It is bad enough being locked into a platform, but getting locked out is just as easy. With my mobile phone, I am always getting phoned up and asked if I wish to subscribe to some new multimedia messaging, online mail, or voice mail service. I cannot absorb as much ‘functionality’ into my life as technology wants me to. I received a multi-media tutorial today, to my phone, showing me how to use this stuff – as if I had time to learn this tutorial! Bob Kahn said he is doing work at the moment, into trying to find a way that people can own a universal passport online. Time will only tell.

    The trouble with all of this computing utility business, buying the applications off the network as you need them – is the lack of a decent equivalent for money – in the network environment. We still do not have a suitable alternative to credit cards, and banking. Every week or month, some new system emerges to approximate the usefulness of money. Basically, you end up with several different online credit cards, several different equivalents for online money! In the real world, would you have a pocket full of euros, dollars and yen all mixed up together? You thought changing your mail service was bad! Someone will have to invent a useful standard for online money, before we can see a real computing utility. What happens if the digital money I used last week to pay for my utility service, doesn’t work this week, or has deflated in value, relative to some new upstart money definition, which uses a different algorithm. Every time Google change there search algorithms, to beat the spammers right now, it effects online businesses around the globe like a hurricane or other ‘natural’ disaster. It seems as if the ‘Chaos’ of Mandlebrot has been suitably captured in the digital world, if nothing else. As poor people in the real world build on fault lines or natural flood planes, in the digital world, businesses continue to build their strategy around the state of the Google search engine, at a specific point in time.

    At the moment, I hate the fact, that as I wander around the Noosphere, I might as well just be a refugee from some foreign land. I don’t feel I belong, I don’t hold any form of currency, address or citizenship. I feel like that character played by Kevin Costner in ‘Waterworld’, roaming around a wide ocean. Except he was more advanced, he could use soil as currency. As soon as I begin to get used to a certain landscape or behaviour of things, it all gets ‘ upgraded’. Just like in the physical world, if someone builds a highway ontop of your home you might get annoyed. Yet in the Noosphere anything goes, and you might as well get used to this itinerant, sort of post-holocaust existence. So perhaps games like Stalker aren’t an exaggeration, but a true reflection of the state of our digital world. A world void of civilisation, urban settlements or architecture. Sure, the physical world does have its problems. In the real world, we often observe old factories and whole industrial landscapes that are left redundant. You will often come across an old sea ports with big huge walls for goods which don’t arrive anymore. All over Europe, there are great defensive walls built around cities to keep out non-existent attackers. Part of what I was trained to do as an architect, was to observe these various fragments of the urban landscape and to wonder as to their future use, or value of amenity for inhabitants in the city. Without trying to erase the memory of what has gone before. That is the trouble really for me, the Internet still has no memory.

    Brian O’ Hanlon.

    May 2006.

  3. Zephram Stark

    Fierce fights with competitors aren’t exclusive to Microsoft. Microsoft is just better at it because it recognizes that, in any mass software market: the laws of supply and demand are backwards and, in the end, there can be only one.

    Now that the end has arrived for the markets of many Microsoft products, natural selection turns inward. If it didn’t, I wouldn’t consider the inhabitants of Redmond to be human. If Mr. Gates learned anything from Apple’s “corporate shirts” against “Steve’s pirates” debacle in the early eighties, however, he should be able to put his programmers’ evolutionary instincts to a more productive use.

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