Has Microsoft Become Bipolar?

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Has Microsoft become bipolar? You might think so, from the news reports over the last few weeks.

On the plus side they’ve issued a version of Windows that has so far received glowing reviews and which – to date – has dodged at least two fairly major security bullets. They’ve also made a number of diplomatic approaches to the open source community, including an apology and immediate retraction when they stepped on the license toes of the GPL.

At the same time the marketing department has been relentlessly shooting itself in the foot with heavy-handed, severely out-of-touch media advertising (remember Windows 7 Launch Parties?). And last week the company topped it off with the Grinch-inspired move of withdrawing the Windows 7 Family Pack offer just before Christmas.

It makes me ask: will the REAL Microsoft please stand up?

I’m not the only one wondering. Back in October, Fortune magazine published a piece on the business aspect of the Microsoft, which opined that after a decade of Steve Ballmer’s leadership the culture at the company’s lush and quiet Redmond campus has become far removed from the relentlessly focused attitude that once drove most digital revolutionaries. The article went so far as to suggest that the ill-structured Vista system appeared to be the result of a business decision to divide the task of designing its features to competing teams. Of course, when the teams met to combine their efforts, nothing quite matched.

Bill Gates had never been shy about driving the company he founded toward world domination, but in his youth he earned some genuine Geek Creds. That experience instilled in him the native, visceral understanding that the product he was in the business of selling was nothing less than modern magic, the digital incarnation that offered mortals control over a complex electronic device. And by the way, that device could also control a business.

There was nothing subtle about the Microsoft of Bill Gates. The intention was to perform a complete transfiguration of the very concept of Business, based on establishing an unavoidable necessity to integrate PCs in the fundamental business process. Because Gates was a True Believer in his software, his marketing approach was based on showing how his product and its support could meet each and every need, including the needs that the product itself generated.

In time, no self-respecting executive could imagine his enterprise surviving without Windows and Office – and the IT staff to keep those sophisticated computer systems secure and running. Consequently, though each business had its own independent IT people, every one of them was a Windows/Office expert, Microsoft-trained and certified, a representative of the Central Authority embedded in each and every enterprise. The Microsoft lifeblood was transfused into the veins of every corporation in the land.

In January 2000, Bill Gates turned the control of Microsoft over to Steve Ballmer. Ballmer was no newcomer to Microsoft. As Gates’ second-in-command nearly from the beginning, his business life had always revolved around the corporation. His approach, however, had always been different – some say perfectly complementary – to Gates’. His blustery, outspoken personality was better suited to the grip-and-grin aspect of salesmanship than to technical presentation, and not long after he took over the difference began to show.

The IT community, in large measure, kept the faith despite the often embarrassingly outdated marketing that characterized Early 21st Century Microsoft. Rumors and hints of a new and vastly improved Windows began to leak out, even its project codename, Longhorn. It was to be so new, so radical, so unlike its predecessors that even the Apple stalwarts would gasp in wonder. “Secret” information was great hype at first, but as time passed with no further revelations, seeds of doubt began to generate. In fact, so strong had the hype become that it was doubtful any product, no matter how advanced, could have satisfied the anticipation that developed. Then out came Vista

Among the great Lead Balloons of history, Vista ranks right up there with the Edsel, a product doomed to failure by overblown expectations. It began to appear that the Age of Microsoft would, like that of the great empires of bygone days, fade slowly away into the misty past.

But now comes Windows 7. Nowhere near as loudly heralded as Vista, its beta and RC test versions were quietly and widely distributed. In place of the secrecy and rumors that had preceded Vista, an increasing chorus of surprised delight rose from the Windows 7 testers. Could this be from the same Microsoft that dropped Vista on us? Had the heavy-handed ogre seen the error of his ways? Certainly this new release bore the DNA of the respected Windows XP, along with unmistakable touches to address the famous vulnerability of its ancestor.

At least by name, this is the same firm that gave Launch Parties and took away Christmas presents in December during a Great Recession. But clearly, something had happened internally to transmute a Vista into a Seven, and what that was could only have been done by the techies. Somehow, in extremis, management had apparently given enough time, salary, prestige, and authority to the corporation’s in-house technical resources that they could produce an operating system for technological, not marketing, reasons. It was a huge change.

Shortly after the release of Windows 7, Daniel Lyons wrote an article in Newsweek titled “The Lost Decade,” with the subtitle “Why Steve Ballmer is no Bill Gates.” He reported that in the ten years of Ballmer, Microsoft’s stock has dropped nearly 50 percent while Apple’s has risen by 700 percent, and in hot technology areas like search, music, video and social media, Microsoft still plays a game of catch-up. The problem, he points out, lies in putting a technology company in the control of non-techies.

And that’s why Microsoft looks so bipolar: the technical side has a great many very clever and dedicated computer people making genuine forward progress, while carrying the nearly crushing burden of supporting relatively ancient legacy systems and applications.

Even in the fastest changing technology era ever, those Microsoft contributions from bygone days are still so outstanding and remain so useful to so many people that they continue to be productive. That, in the end, is the real reason Microsoft is such a giant in the software world. Too bad the other side of the company doesn’t notice!

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