Microsoft's Ballmer and Ozzie tag-team on mediocrity
Failure to communicate
Comment Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer and chief software architect Ray Ozzie put on a poor performance when quizzed by Walt Mossberg at the All Things Digital conference, judging from the live blogs of the event.
What was wrong? They allowed the conversation to be focused mainly on competing products: Apple iPad, Google Android, Google Apps, Google search. Since these products have exposed weaknesses in Microsoft’s own offerings, it was unlikely to work out well.
Mossberg asks about the transition to the cloud. “You guys are putting, for instance, a version of Office in the cloud.”
That was a gift. You would expect the two men to enthuse about how Microsoft’s dominance with desktop Office was now including the cloud as well, how the Office Web Apps enable new opportunities for collaboration, how Microsoft’s investment in XML for Office was now enabling the same document to live both on the desktop and in the cloud.
Nope. Ozzie waffles about people being more connected. Ballmer “disputes the notion that everything is moving to the cloud”.
So what about Steve Jobs' prediction of a transition from PCs to tablets and mobile devices? Ballmer says “not everyone can afford five devices,” lending support to the notion that Windows is for those who cannot afford something better.
Mossberg asks about tablets. Although Mossberg did not say so explicitly, tablets have been a tragicomedy at Microsoft. Bill Gates evangelized the tablet concept years ago, pre-echoing Jobs’ claim that they would largely replace laptops. Microsoft tried again and again, with XP Tablet Edition, Vista on tablets, then “Origami,” or Ultra-mobile PC. Going back even further there were was the stylus-driven Palm-size PC (I have one in the loft). Tablet PC was not a complete failure, but remained an expensive niche. Origami sank without trace.
Ballmer replied that the “race is on”. Meaning? I guess, now that Apple has demonstrated how to make a successful Tablet, Microsoft will copy it? Or what?
I am not sure how you defend such a poor track record. But the starting point would be to explain that Microsoft has learned from past mistakes. In some ways it has. Windows 7 learns from mistakes in Vista, and Windows Phone 7 learns from mistakes in Windows Mobile.
None of that from Ballmer, who says vaguely that he expects Windows to run on a variety of devices. He makes matters worse later, by defending the stylus. “A lot of people are going to want a stylus,” he says. Some do, perhaps, but Apple has pretty much proved that most people prefer not to have one. I’d like to see effort go into designing away the need for a stylus, rather than implying that Microsoft is just going to repeat its part mistakes.
Someone in the audience asks: “Will we see Silverlight on Android or iPhone?” “My guess is if it did, it would be blocked”, says Ballmer, ignoring the Android part of the question.
He’s ignoring the force of the question. Why bother developing for Silverlight, if it is locked into a Microsoft-only future, especially considering the company’s poor position in mobile currently? Ballmer could have mentioned the Nokia Symbian port. He could have said how Microsoft would get it on iPhone just as soon as Apple would allow it. He could have said that Microsoft is working with Google on an Android port - I don’t know if it is, but certainly it should be. He could have said that Silverlight plus Visual Studio plus Microsoft’s server applications is a great platform that extends beyond Windows-only clients.
Microsoft does have problems but it also has strong assets. However, it is doing an exceptionally poor job of communicating its strengths. ®
Tim's article originally appeared on his blog IT Writing, here.
Microsoft's one & only strength.
Near ubiquity. That is it. Sadly, that's been it, for the last decade and a half.
It's not faster, slimmer, prettier, more useful, more secure, easier to use, or easier to program for, than any of the competition.
And the punters are beginning to notice ...
Microsoft has strong assets?
>Microsoft does have problems but it also has strong assets. However, it is doing an exceptionally poor job of communicating its strengths.
You can't begin to solve the problem until you first admit to yourself there is a problem. Look at the latest mini-msft post. This guy nails it every time. Steve Ballmer has at least today finally admitted that they have a problem: "we missed an entire cycle in mobile." Without focusing on the fact that it took 2 years to come to this stunning revelation - this is only the first step of many to find the solution.
Program managers and above at Microsoft have goals. Their goal is almost required by company tradition to be "make my product the industry standard". It's not about making a great product that pulls the world to them. It's about putting a spike in all opposition. This had worked for a long time, but it's completely broken and the innate failure of it is now revealed. People are starting to realise it now. These goals don't deliver innovation - they drive stagnation.
In this context the mission seems to be: Mind bend the hardware people to believe all the value is in your software, and they will kill each other (rather than you) to deliver the lowest margin hardware possible. Because in this world your software is an essential component, it's assumed that they must give you utter control of the user experience no matter how badly you screw it up.
Apple has figured most (but not all) of this out. It's not about these widgets. It's not about control of the market (though Jobs does seem to be a bit of a control freak). To apple it's about providing an experience that users find attractive enough to draw a huge mass of developers. This is the keystone that drives the rest of it, and so the point of this needle is enabling people to do stuff they couldn't do before, and enabling to do these things in a way that's easy for them, and gets out of their way the rest of the time. Jobs thinks holistically though - it's about money and once the tip of the needle is in you have to drive it home to get all of the money.
So Jobs' vision includes letting third parties develop an ecosystem where third parties compete to enable customers in new ways - knowing that this gives him millions of new features he couldn't afford to develop even with his teeming billions and at the same time absolves him of guilt for somewhat poor features bought from third parties - but he still gets a cut. Apple isn't at all interested in gaining control of the PC market - they're only interested in gaining control of the profitabe 10% of it. For all of them HP and Dell can kill each other over the 0% margin desktops, laptops and servers hoping to get their money on services.
Media, social networking and ads are important features Steve Jobs is pulling together well. Believe it or not, people do want advertisements. People just want advertisements which are laser-focused on the specific thing they want - even if it's "Happy hours at taverns within one mile of my current location" (a topic of recent conversation and iPhone app demonstration). They just want advertisements interspersed with unbiased and credible information like reviews. This empowers people in that it allows them to find the vendors who care to advertise easily, in a way that doesn't threaten their freedom of choice, in a contextually relevant way. If you 're in Boston, Happy Hours that end 20 minutes from now in Tampa Bay are not relevant, but ads mixed with reviews of establishments within 1/4 mile of you that have a happy hour that extends into the next hour are relevant.
The Apple iLife is not for everybody. Steve Jobs is opposed to porn apps for example, so you can't get them on your iPad or iPhone unless its jailbroken. Anybody who thinks this is a moral issue for Steve Jobs is just a fool. As far as I know Steve Jobs is a grownup, and most adults know that "The Internet is for porn". It's about money, about being presentable. These Apple products still feature a browser and codec, and that's all an adult needs to find any type of content they desire. But you can't be seen to deliberately facilitate porn to be a credible vendor for the larger market that includes corporates and government agencies that can't be seen to support porn. It's somewhat like the celebrities who make sex videos to rescue their careers and place them with distributors so they can sue & settle for a cut. It's a sham. Porn's not the only example here though.
In the end your iProduct is about getting to pay more for it that it costs to make by a certain percentage (some say 40%). Jobs extends this a little bit, adding that it must also enable you to buy things after the fact that provide contiuing profits at near zero cost by being a broker rather than a seller. Your iProduct becomes a store where you can purchase the objects of your desire (advertised or searched) when YOU want to, any hour of the day or night. This is a great deal for Apple, for the advertiser, and for you. It's still not quite the ideal answer.
And then there's Android. The thing Android is about is that the Googlers want to play in this game. They don't have to make money on it right away because they're doing fine in search and advertising for that so they give it away - unless you want the Google apps too, and then there's a fee. But giving people choice enamors them to you. Apple made exclusive deals with AT&T for wireless and data plans, and that created a vacuum because other vendor OS products suck. But other cellular providers and handset makers that service them need a credible platform to sell if they can't get the iPhone. Windows Mobile 7 ain't it - it was promised 18 months ago and isn't delivering. In Cellular, that's forever. The other providers MUST have product that's shippable and showable, or they're toast - and that creates a vacuum when they can't get the hot new iPhone. It's not Google's fault they were sucked into this hole: nature abhors a vacuum.
But the Android developer market is open to everybody, even if they sell porn. It's a wide open field that attempts no control over the developer. People write apps and sell them, and if they sell them so be it. If they can't get clearance for the app store, they can offer their app from any website because Google allows that in their Android OS.
I hope eventually that Android wins. To me it's not about the widget, but about what I can do with it. If I plunk down my hard-earned cash for a hardware platform I want to OWN it. I want it to obey me and nobody else. I want it to let me do whatever I want regardless of the motivations of its vendor. If I can get that platform then what it can do for me is ultimately ANYTHING I want because if I have a desire then it's probably common enough to drive a market to serve it
But if it happens that Apple redefines the world so much that they kill or at least dimininsh the power of Microsoft, well that's one impediment to progress I won't miss. I want progress to resume and grow, as it did in the '80's. If that's what it takes to buy freedom from the prevention of progress that Microsoft means to me, I'll pay it and hope we can kill the new devil one day.
This post doesn't have a lot of Microsoft in it. I want to have something to say about their current mobile, tablet and CE products. But it's been two years since they promised them and they're not here. The remarkably innovative products announced this week do not promise to ship this year. Given that things change real fast in IT, it's best to assume they got nothin'. Their old strategy has been worked around. Maybe now they should try innovation: giving us what we want, rather than controlling what we can get. If they can't focus on empowering and enabling us to do the new and interesting things we want, of what use are they?
Mediocrity is the word
Lets look at basics :- if you want to sell to individuals in huge numbers, you need fantastic design and brilliant marketing. Apple get it. If you want to sell to business, you need rock solid products, with very slow evolution not huge leaps. Sun and Linux get it. If you try and do both, or switch between the two, you eventually just end up looking stupid and fall between the cracks. MS should have stuck to what they were good at - simple desktop single user OS, not secure, not suitable for continuous use, but easy to use for your average Mick. Windows mobile and other distractions? Big fail.