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Microsoft’s 4 Real Problems that Gates, Nadella, and Ballmer Can’t Fix

Posted by Bob Warfield on October 8, 2014

WushuI just finished the Vanity Fair piece on Gates, Ballmer, Nadella, and whether Microsoft can be rebooted to its former glory.  It’s a good article, but it’s all about the past mistakes and there’s little about the future there.  Mostly, it is the account of how two best friends (Gates and Ballmer) broke up over the internal stresses of running Microsoft.  Ballmer characteristically doesn’t accept blame for much (we missed search and phones, but our real problem was the Longhorn project which the article implies he blames equally on Gates) and Gates never really talks much about what went wrong at all.

I’ve written a little bit before about what I see as the problems, but wanted to do a full treatment of it.

Problem number 1:  Microsoft Was Never Agile

Remember the old saw about how Microsoft products were never very good until the 3rd release?  Add to that the notion that the minimum product cycle was about 2 years and often 3 or 4 and you begin to get an idea of just how non-agile the company is. There are claims that this is being fixed, but it is a huge cultural problem to fix.  Microsoft is run by committees chaired by Product Managers and MBA’s.  Those folks are not agile by their very nature, meaning they don’t understand concepts like “Minimum Viable Product” nor how to work off a strictly prioritized agile backlog.  It’s just not how the culture works and it will take Herculean upheavals and new tissue grafts to ever make it very agile.

I’ve been through this conversion on more than one occasion, and it’s never easy.  Unfortunately, the very tenets of agile done right are at odds with how Microsoft makes its decisions.  Gates, Ballmer, and Nadella grew up developing software the Microsoft Way, which is not the Agile Way.  They may pay lip service to Agile, but until they have lived and breathed it, or brought in those new tissue grafts who have lived and breathed Agile, it’ll just be a lot of talk and Microsoft will continue to move far more slowly than Agile competitors.

Problem Number 2:  Microsoft is a Commoditizer, not an Innovator

Microsoft has always been a commoditizer.  They take someone else’s Great Idea, build a high quality facsimile, and sell it under the brand and monopoly umbrella.  That worked well for a long time, but the combination of frictionless product discovery via the Internet, the pace of agile software development, and new business models such as advertising make the role of commoditizer, at least as Microsoft plays it, very difficult.

In the past, people bought the commodity for a couple of reasons that are not nearly as strong today:

–  Brand:  The power of brands has greatly diminished, Microsoft’s brand has become tarnished, and there are many new brands to choose from.  If nothing else has happened during Microsoft’s corporate life, the world has learned that relative unknowns become Big Brands in a very short time.  There’s not nearly the stigma buying lesser names that there used to be. Brand is also about getting noticed, and the increasingly frictionless web has made it easier and easier for upstarts to get noticed.

–  Price:  When I was a General in the Office Wars, Microsoft beat Borland and my Quattro Pro product on price.  It was clever pricing too–who wants to buy individual best of breed products when you can get such a great deal on a suite with everything you need?  Today, Microsoft is hard pressed to be the low cost provider.  Open Source and Advertising Models have completely destroyed that advantage.

–  Interoperability:  This is Microsoft’s last bastion.  We buy Windows because so much that we depend on in terms of applications, data, and hardware needs Windows to function.  But this is not a particularly strong barrier.  It amazes to me that companies like Google haven’t worked harder to eliminate it.

Problem Number 3:  Microsoft is Not Especially Good at Strategy

I know this will come as a shocker to many, especially those inside Microsoft, but it’s true.  Once Microsoft’s essential monopolies were cemented, their strategy consisted 100% of holding onto them and milking them for every last penny they could.  You could call that strategy, but it isn’t competitive strategy, and that’s where Microsoft have been losing their shirts.

When you’ve been so successful for so long with such strong monopolies, it isn’t surprising that strategy becomes atrophied.

When you’ve gotten there by copying and commoditizing the Other Guy’s Ideas, who will deliver the next great Strategic Ideas that change the terrain meaningfully to Microsoft’s advantage?

Strategy is what you do to make winning easier.  When you have a very hard time admitting you’re losing badly and you think you have all the time in the world to fix it with overwhelming force, why bother with Strategy?

Perhaps Nadella is a strategically subtle Guy, but he hasn’t shown that side yet.  Sure, there are some decent tactics at play, but aren’t they more finally accepting the Other Guy’s Playbook than genuinely inventing any new plays yourself?

Problem Number 4:  Microsoft is Clueless About Creating Insanely Great Products

This has been clear for a long time.  As they commoditize Other People’s Ideas, the results have never been quite as good.  It’s like there’s a little extra noise each time you copy a tape.  By that 3rd generation where Microsoft supposedly gets it right, there’s quite a lot of noise.

The blame here goes squarely with Microsoft’s Product Management Culture.  There has been a misconception about Product Management for a long time in High Tech.  Many see them as the ones who write the stone tablets that are product vision and hand them to engineers who then laboriously transcribe those visionary ideas into products.  While a tiny percentage of Product Managers may be good at that, the vast majority are not, though their organizations give them that power for a variety of historical and political reasons.

Here’s the thing:

Product Managers are the only people in the organization whose sole job is to listen to the customer and help inform product direction of that feedback.

That’s it, that’s all, it’s a full time job, full stop.  They pass those customer insights on to whomever really does do the Product Vision.

The other shoe that drops is implementing laundry lists of literal customer requests does not a product vision make. Instead it creates the cluttered messes that are what we hate about Microsoft software today.  Synthesizing all of those requests to understand the real underlying problem customers want to solve may inform at least a portion of the vision.  But most of the real visionaries take this input as just a set of anecdotes.  They derive a vision far larger than the input because innovation cannot be deduced it can only be imagined and concieved.  The results may even be at odds with the customer input.  Most game changers are.  Characters like Steve Jobs and even Henry Ford (if I’d asked customers what they wanted they’d have said a better horse, not a car) worked that way.

By this stage, Microsoft software usability is hugely tarnished to the point of embarrassment.  No fiddling around with the current Product Management-based culture will fix it.  Real Product Vision is a fairly dictatorial process.  Until Microsoft finds and empowers some real visionaries, little will change.

Whither Thou Goest, Oh Microsoft?

Four tough problems that the current and past leadership and in fact the very culture at Microsoft are not well equipped to deal with.  Yet there are some mitigating factors.

Hardware and the Steady March of Moore’s Law Will Help to Buy Microsoft Time

I recently acquired a Microsoft Surface Pro 3.  It’s a fantastic piece of hardware–every bit the equal of Apple’s iPad or Macbook hardware.  The software is flawed, but relatively fixable.  When I use it, I can’t help but wonder if it were a little bit cheaper and the usability flaws were fixed, why would I care about iPads or Android tablets?

Those older devices have the compromises that were needed to make them work given the hardware limitations of their day. As it becomes possible to offer anything that could run on a PC in that form factor, such devices seem increasingly anachronistic.  This is a wide open opportunity for Microsoft to re-emerge if they can fix the usability problems of Windows 8.

Unfortunately, I don’t see Windows 10 doing that, but that’s a subject for another article.

Microsoft’s Chief Rivals are Not What They Used to Be

Apple and Google may be bigger than ever before, but their inevitability is much more in question than at various times in the past.

Apple is sorely missing Steve Jobs and has had a raft of problems lately ranging from privacy breaches to the painful task of propping up a stock price that already touches the sky.  In may ways Tim Cook could turn out to be Apple’s version of Steve Ballmer.  He’s certainly no Steve Jobs, and the question will be whether he can create a sufficiently Jobsian substitute in the already extant Apple Culture to keep the pace of innovation on.  The longer they keep up with ho-hums like the iPhone 6 or their wrist watch (battery life of one day and most of my friends have completely stopped wearing wrist watches) the more the world will begin to wonder.

Every day brings Google closer to being unable to sustain the growth needed for its multiples on its core search advertising business.  Every day customers are educated more fully that they are really not customers–in an ad-driven business model they are the inventory, and they’re not treated nearly as well as customers expect to be.  Google is so far another Microsoft milking its monopolies while it thrashes around wildly looking for new revenue sources that are big enough and profitable enough to matter.  Most of their acquisitions die with a whimper.

Microsoft Have a Monstrous Huge War Chest

The acqusition of Minecraft and Nokia makes that clear.  If Microsoft can find suitably strategic targets of opportunity, they certainly have the cash to acquire them.  The trick is in finding the right targets.  All too often this becomes an excercise in tying two stones together in hopes they float better than one.  Most of these acquisitions wind up net destroyers of capital.

Nadella has the Honeymoon Period’s Willing Suspension of Disbelief

He has time, perhaps two more years, to start making meaningful progress out of the quagmire.

Gates is no dummy either.  In fact he is probably the smartest person I’ve ever met.  Vanity Fair got it wrong when they said he’s a big picture guy.  I spent an afternoon debating deep product architecture with him as he considered acquiring my company and at least at that time he had deeper product knowledge than any CEO I’d ever met.  Unfortunately, he has little knowledge that’s relevant to the 4 big problems I’ve outlined.  But, he has always been the sort to throw himself deeply at problems, even intractable problems of the third world as the Vanity Fair piece suggests.

The trick for both of these gentlemen is focusing on the right problems to solve.  If they can, they’re likely to make a difference.  If they can’t, there will be change visible but it will be for naught.

What odds do you give them and what are the right problems for them to focus on?

2 Responses to “Microsoft’s 4 Real Problems that Gates, Nadella, and Ballmer Can’t Fix”

  1. Jerry Foster said

    Interesting article, Bob, and you are not the first blogger to recently discuss the “demise” of Microsoft. What I find fascinating is that you are seemingly unaware, as are the other bloggers, of Microsoft’s real direction. It is not Office, Windows, Surface, xBox, or anything like that. It’s Azure. That is where they are headed, and that is the future of Microsoft. If you want to know whether Microsoft will make it or not, you need to analyze their efforts in the cloud platform market, not the consumer-facing products we have used for so long.

    • Jerry, if their entire future is Azure, then they’ve got worse problems than even I have identified. Just getting enough of their business converted over to it will be bad enough, but Cloud Platforms are inherently low margin commodity businesses. At least the broadly horizontal kind like Azure. Despite Nadella’s background, I don’t see much evidence they have bet everything on Azure and are abandoning people-facing products. They’re not consumer, BTW. They’ve always been more business than consumer oriented.

      Even so, many of the same problems I describe would prevent Azure from totally dominating. A slow commoditizer of Cloud platforms going up against Google and Amazon is not a good formula for success. And Insanely Great applies to platforms at least as much as it does to UI. So same problems. Just look at how they’ve let their tools business slip away because they couldn’t manage the danger of the Open Source encroachment there.

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