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Microsoft haters: You gotta lop off a lot of legs to slay Ballmer's monster

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Where's Microsoft's soft underbelly?

While the basic strategy is sound the execution is far from guaranteed. In today's world execution requires balance between strategic initiatives, tactical initiatives and community engagement. The inability to get this right is Microsoft's soft underbelly.

Strategic initiatives are long-term. They generally cross product lines and business units. A great example of a functional strategic initiative is One Microsoft. The tie up between the Azure and STB teams has worked well and produced fantastic technologies. Breaking down the warring fiefdom culture of Microsoft on a wider scale will take time, but if they succeed then great things could happen.

The flip side of that are ideas like Windows 8's Metro interface. The strategy was to get everyone familiar with the Metro-style touchscreen-focussed user interface on desktops, tablets and slablets; this familiarity was to cascade into adoption of Windows Phone and Microsoft's Metro-themed SaaS services. Microsoft's grand strategists didn't count on botching Windows 8 and Windows RT's community engagement so thoroughly that the backlash would drive users away from Metro-themed products instead of towards them.

Tactical initiatives are simply money grabs. Building userbases and exploiting short-term events to extract the maximum cash possible. Microsoft certainly has a proven track record of parting businesses and individuals from their money, but their tactics are increasingly leading to enmity. Poor tactical execution is limiting future strategic options.

Competitors can defeat Microsoft simply by capitalizing on Microsoft's community faux pas. Neglect, ignorance and intermittent blatant hostility from those within the Redmondian echo chamber towards those without is where Microsoft is vulnerable.

Developers, developers, developers

Metrics has been core to Microsoft’s product design, marketing and go-to-market planning for some time. Unfortunately the human element remains something we can't yet quantify. Social media has – like it or not – changed the way we do business. Humans have always been social creatures, but now we can be social at scale. In a world that's "always on" one tweet can cost a company billions.

In the past few years Microsoft has variously alienated large chunks of the systems administrator, SME, developer, power user/enthusiast, partner and office end-user communities. Worse, many of Microsoft's competitors were never populist organisations to begin with. These companies don't have a history of caring about their users' requirements. The leaves the error bars of successful interaction wider for them than they are for Microsoft; put simply, their user bases are more tolerant of mistakes.

The irony is that Microsoft used to understand this. Ballmer's oft-quoted "developers, developers, developers" moment (see video below) is a great example: the CEO knew then that keeping the various communities underpinning Microsoft's success happy was critically important.

Somewhere along the way, Microsoft lost sight of this.

Choose to succeed

In my experience many of Microsoft's developers and product managers are open, receptive, and even eager to look at things from new angles. They are creative people who like considering new use cases but are visibly afraid of both marketing and licensing. "One Microsoft" does not extend to integration here and this barrier prevents the creation of go-to-market strategies that would excite (rather than alienate) the user communities that Microsoft depends upon.

For every market segment Microsoft operates in I believe there are simple and cost effective ways to regain and sustain user trust, support and even admiration. Unfortunately, my personal experience (as end user, Microsoft Partner and a technology journalist,) is that the inner layers of Microsoft’s management structure are heavily insulated from criticism.

Microsoft has surrounded itself with individuals and organisations that largely agree with it. Microsoft asks its chosen few for opinions and they repeat back what it wants to hear. Microsoft exists in an echo chamber of its own making, increasingly disconnected from the user communities it relies on for revenue.

Microsoft makes some of the best technology in the world and the recent reorganisations look set to make it an increasingly efficient creator of excellent and useful technologies. But having good – or even the best – technology simply isn't enough.

The next 24 months is Microsoft's true window of vulnerability. If the wrong calls are made Microsoft's competitors will shred them. It will take a decade or so for Microsoft to die, but if there is a chance for a fatal wound it is now. If the right choices are made, however, Microsoft becomes functionally untouchable for the rest of our careers.

The disconcerting question that I keep returning to is "are the many individuals in charge of Microsoft even aware that their vulnerability lies in how they handle community engagement?" If they aren't, why has this not been conveyed to them? If they are, will Ballmer and company make the right calls to deal with the human elements of the business equation? We'll know soon enough. ®

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