Does Microsoft Need a History Lesson?

When I was just out of high school, I worked as a wet-behind-the-ears, embarassingly earnest salesman at a software store not far from where I was taking classes at a local college. I distinctly remember loading up cardboard boxes with copies of Lotus 1-2-3, WordPerfect 5.1, and Harvard Graphics (published by Software Publishing Corporation, or SPC) for business customers back then, as those software packages where the market-leading spreadsheet, word processing, and presentation software products, respectively, in the late 80's and early 90's. They all required MS-DOS to run, and each shipped in a behemoth slipcover box with hundreds of pages of actual printed (you know, on paper!) documentation.

Microsoft Windows 3.0--released in May 1990 -- was also a popular item in the store. Many customers asked me if WordPerfect, Lotus 1-2-3 and Harvard Graphics were available for Windows, and the answer (at least way back then) was no. The companies behind all three products were doing their level best to blunt the success of Windows by being slow to bring out Windows versions of their products, mistakenly believing that business customers would turn away from Microsoft in droves when they knew they couldn't buy such important pieces of software for Windows. All three companies had hubris aplenty, believing that refusing to grace Microsoft's latest OS with their software presence would be the kiss of death to Windows.

The rest, as they say, is history: Users did turn away, but not from Microsoft. They began dumping WordPerfect, Lotus 1-2-3 and Harvard Graphics for Windows versions of Microsoft Word, Excel and Powerpoint, and never looked back. These three companies did eventually bring out Windows versions of their products, but they never recovered the lead that Microsoft opened up while they were busy trying to extinguish Windows rather than embrace it.

Deja Vu All Over Again

Philosopher George Santayana once famously said that "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." It's hard to argue with that logic, but I believe Microsoft is now perilously close to falling victim to that maxim, this time with their lack of application support for competing tablet and mobile platforms, namely Android and iOS devices. Microsoft does provide a mobile version of Office for Windows Phone 7 users, but where is that app for Android, iPhone, and the iPad? Microsoft is first and foremost a software company, but their own refusal to bring Office to those platforms opens up a window for competitive products to gain a foothold. Haven't we all seen this scenario before?

Windows 8 and a truly competitive Windows-based tablet are likely at least a full year away. And Windows Phone 7 -- despite some early critical buzz and some truly impressive design features -- is still struggling to be anything more than an asterisk in the battle for smartphone market share. Yet Microsoft still refuses to bring their most significant apps to competing mobile devices, exhibiting the same sclerotic hubris that afflicted WordPerfect, Lotus, and SPC in the late 80's and early 90's, and which eventually led to Microsoft's complete domination of the server and desktop.

So what will Microsoft do? While a modest number of Microsoft apps and services (like Bing and OneNote) have trickled on to non-Microsoft mobile devices, mobile editions of Word, Excel, and Powerpoint are nowhere to be seen. If Microsoft believes that witholding software from an emerging computing platform is a bright idea, I'd suggest they give the former management teams of WordPerfect, Lotus, and SPC a call to see what their perspective is.

Do you think Microsoft is shooting itself in the foot by holding back on bringing the Microsoft Office suite to Android and Apple mobile devices? Let me know what you think by commenting on this blog post or following the discussion on Twitter.

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