The Times are A' Changing

While researching two topics I originally intended to write about this week, the thought occurred to me that these topics are part of a larger trend and that the world of Microsoft-oriented computing is changing rapidly. I was reviewing the columns I wrote for Windows & .NET Magazine UPDATE over the past few months and had a weird "Beautiful Mind" moment, in which the seemingly unconnected topics swirled and came together into a (somewhat) cohesive whole—and that larger picture is starting to make sense.

Let me explain. I've been following Microsoft in one way or another for more than a decade, and I watched as the scrappy upstart became the industry heavyweight we all know (and sometimes love) today. But Microsoft grew so fast and became dominant so easily that the company never experienced the necessary learning process that most companies face. Microsoft's random defeats—such as the ill-fated "Bob" task-oriented UI and the first Windows CE-based Handheld PCs—didn't inhibit the company because its dominant products, Windows and Office, and the revenue generated from these products, were never seriously challenged.

Sure, Microsoft talks about challenges and "bet the company" products, as it's always done. The company hyped the Internet threat, which it neatly parried by integrating a Web browser into its Windows family, and it pushes digital convergence products in a bid to move into new home, mobile, and business markets. But no serious threat to the company's dominance has pushed the company to the point where it had to respond to the market, rather than have the market respond to it. A decade of mild OS and office productivity updates don't indicate an embattled company.

But something has changed in the past 12 months. Microsoft's talk about betting the company on Windows .NET, the company's sudden and unexpected move to Trustworthy Computing, and its attempts, both internal and external, to change public perception of the company all suggest that Microsoft senses a sea change in the marketplace and that, if the company doesn't move quickly, it stands to lose a lot of that market. Watching Microsoft struggle a bit is interesting, but even more interesting is how the company and its corporate culture react to these changes.

These changes could never have occurred under Bill Gates' leadership. When Gates handed the reins to Steve Ballmer 2 years ago, many people assumed that Gates would still control the company from behind the scenes. Clearly, that assumption is wrong. Ballmer has undertaken a series of sometimes mind-boggling reorganizations and executive shuffles in a bid to meld the company in his own style. And although his efforts took time, and the company underwent some fits and starts, today's Microsoft is Ballmer's Microsoft. Here's what he's accomplished recently.

Executive Accountability
Under Ballmer, several high-level executives now have direct fiscal control over their product lines, and they report directly to Ballmer. If a product line can't justify its existence, it dies; the company will no longer float unprofitable products simply because other products in the same division are successful. The result is that each product will offer better features and effectively compete with third-party solutions, or the company will kill the product.

The economic ramifications are obvious, but Microsoft's move to accountability is long overdue. The company is huge, complicated, and has its fingers in every pie imaginable. Over time, I expect this policy to streamline and improve the company's offerings.

Old Code vs. Security
In a similar vein, the company will treat old, insecure code as harshly as unprofitable products. Microsoft Director of Security Assurance Steve Lipner said this week that the company will begin exorcising old features from current products if those features receive little use or pose potential security problems. This policy mirrors Microsoft's newfound belief that security must take precedence over new features, and although some users will be surprised and chagrined to see beloved features disappearing over time, Lipner says that this purging is the only way to truly embrace Trustworthy Computing.

For example, last week, a critical Internet Explorer (IE) security vulnerability surfaced that opened up millions of Windows users to hack attacks. Lipner says that the vulnerability is in IE's support for Gopher, an ancient, rarely used Internet protocol. So don't be surprised when Microsoft removes or turns off this feature and similar features in the near future. "A lot of the \[upcoming\] design changes \[to our products\] are to remove this feature or turn that one off by default," he said.

I think Microsoft can expect criticism as the company begins to retire features and entire products more quickly than it did before. But that criticism will fade if the company's products become more secure.

Internal Call to Action
In a June 6 memo to Microsoft's entire workforce, Ballmer spelled out the internal changes that the company will need to undergo to gain the trust of the outside world. Ballmer wrote that Microsoft must convey "core values of honesty, integrity, and respect" to its customers and partners, and it must regain the trust that it lost during its 5-year antitrust battle with the US government.

I think the old saying about good generals not necessarily making good presidents is true for Gates and Microsoft. Gates had the right combination of skills to take Microsoft from the fringes of the computing world to its current position of dominance in record time. But once Microsoft became hugely successful, the company needed a more pragmatic and open approach. Gates' most enduring legacy might well be that he stepped aside at the right time and let the right person guide the company through this current stage of market maturity. And if Ballmer's Microsoft is successful, we'll all benefit.

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