A lot of us are focused on Microsoft and Bill Gates this month as Bill’s last day at the company he founded and ran to dominance passed last Friday. I’ve met Bill several times but only really once spoken to him. From a personal aspect, he has mostly been cordial, and he once personally came to my rescue back when my career as an independent analyst first started, something I’ll never forget. Something else I’ll never forget was the Windows 95 launch, which in my mind and evidently his, was the high point for Microsoft.
He leaves Microsoft in some ways worse and in some ways better than it has ever been. I’ll touch on the worse part but we’ll explore why the firm in some ways is actually better off than it has been in years and why I think Apple, Google and open source software are actually helping the firm, but why Bill’s own change of heart in his final years probably did the most good of all.
We’ll close with my product of the week, in this case a line of laptops from Dell that both approach what Apple is and what it once was at the same time.
My view of Microsoft’s current problems probably points to the one big difference between two men who — on and off — actually seemed to like each other. When Steve Jobs came back to Apple, he took what had become a complex company and made it simple so he could manage it.
When I first visited Microsoft in 1994, I wrote a paper for Dataquest forecasting Microsoft’s decline based on the complexity I saw on that visit. While you could argue Bill was vastly more successful with a complex company than anyone else was likely capable of, I believe the company tried too hard to be like IBM, and unfortunately succeeded in too many ways. The company needed to be simplified to become manageable, and from the site to the organizational structure of the company, it continues to struggle against itself as its greatest impediment.
I learned a number of lessons watching Microsoft. The first was that if you hire people from a powerful company to gain their knowledge, they bring both their good and bad practices — and you need to guard against the bad ones. One of the worst practices in older firms is managing to metrics with the end result being a practice where you award people who are doing really bad things to the company. There was far too much of this at Microsoft during the critical ’90s.
Another thing is you have to be willing to fail. Microsoft created an amazing product called “Microsoft Bob.” Unfortunately, the technology it needed to work right was decades in the future, but the embarrassment of the massive failure all but killed any real work in creating a true artificial intelligence-based interface, and this was actually one of Bill Gates’ personal dreams.
Another lesson is to think about the future when you make strategic moves and be prepared to reverse bad decisions. The consolidation of the desktop, workstation and server code base into one core product was, in hindsight, very similar to what Chrysler did with the “K” series.
It was a bad idea that made desktop Windows too complex and Windows Server both too vulnerable and too far from market requirements, which were closer to Unix. The decision helped father Microsoft’s greatest server competitor, Linux. Distinct markets need distinct products, and after watching the birth of Vista, I don’t even think the promised time-to-market benefits of converging the code bases were ever really realized.
Finally, when going to war with the government, run away. The battle with the U.S. Department of Justice took away Microsoft’s invulnerability and set it up for the European Union problems. If Microsoft had simply negotiated a settlement at the outset, it would now be vastly stronger and at less risk. In addition, I think this battle is what caused Bill to no longer see his job at Microsoft as something he wanted to do anymore.
A Better Microsoft
In a number of ways, however, Bill Gates leaves a company that appears to be getting better in interesting ways. Yes, it is still overly complex and it still has divisions that seem focused on markets that appear to me to be counter-strategic, but in the core space I see a lot of interesting developments.
One of the most interesting is the company’s new passion for interoperability, which largely came about due to a massive influx of open source talent into the company. I think this may eventually result in the desktop and server platforms diverging again and the server platform once again (as was the initial intent) embracing Unix and thus Linux more broadly from technology and practice aspects.
Microsoft’s relationships with Novell and Samba are poster children for how this is not only helping the groups directly involved financially, but also all of the customers who have complained for years about how hard it is to get stuff they need to work together, to work together.
A few months back, I was actually at an open source event at Microsoft where the biggest complaint was the folks didn’t have time to talk to Sam Ramji, the guy leading the Microsoft effort, in more depth and longer. When is it folks actually want to see any executive talk longer — let alone open source folks wanting to hear more from a Microsoft exec?
Thanks significantly to the embarrassing ad campaign from Apple which unfavorably portrays the Windows PC products against the Mac, Microsoft and the large OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) are collaborating at a level I’ve never even thought possible, and one of the biggest restrictions was recently lifted as a result. This was the restriction over changing the user interface, and first HP and now Dell are starting to make improvements. However, Windows 7, something I’m calling “Unlimited Vista,” has become a work of passion as a result — and when you introduce passion, something amazing can result.
Finally, Microsoft has caught Bill Gates’ bug with regard to helping the world heal. Its Unlimited Potential effort is increasingly being focused on problems that could make the world into a vastly better place. Looking at alternative energy, transportation, clean water and increasing crop output are now efforts increasingly connected to Microsoft through Unlimited Potential. Given the first to-do on my list every week is to survive, I can’t see that as a bad thing.
So, the post-Bill Gates Microsoft may be vastly better partly because of Bill’s philanthropic legacy, but partly because of the butt-kicking the company got from competitors who focused Microsoft back on real customer issues and the troubled world outside of Microsoft.
Product of the Week: Dell Studio Laptop Line
One of the things you get out of the latest book on Steve Jobs, Inside Steve’s Brain, is that he has no problem copying anyone. The iPhone and iMac were obvious copies (both better than the originals) and even the Mac interface came from a blend of Xerox and open source (I didn’t discover this last one until I met with the gOS folks a few months back and the common source they enjoyed with Apple was explained).
Dell has taken a page from Steve’s book and created a line that is, in a way, a combination of Apple and Linux concepts — some of which Apple doesn’t even do itself anymore. With an improved task bar, called the “Dell Dock,” the new laptops approach Apple’s ease of use and they come in eight colors with three different silver two-tone variants, going beyond the color choices of the first iMac to give you a level of personalization you could only get from a gaming company but with an affordable price.
This is one of the products that resulted from the changing Microsoft, and it is truly the most Apple-like PC effort that has yet come to market. Granted, it doesn’t come with a Genius Bar, but then most folks know how to use PCs so they probably don’t need the help of a Genius.
Because this product is the latest that we can touch that showcases the new Microsoft, and because Dell took a page out of Steve Jobs’ own book to create it, the Dell Studio line is my product of the week.
Rob Enderle is a TechNewsWorld columnist and the principal analyst for the Enderle Group, a consultancy that focuses on personal technology products and trends.