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How Microsoft Can Fix Microsoft

A few years back, during the Windows Vista debacle, I would complain to various Microsoft employees and PR people that the software giant wasn't responding to Apple's increasingly antagonistic (and incorrect) portrayal of the OS in its infamous "I'm a Mac, I'm a PC" ads. Finally, an exasperated Microsoftie called my bluff and asked what it was, exactly, that I recommended they did. I'm a professional critic, I replied. So I can easily point out the problem. But fixing it is your job.

Cheap, I know. But the truth is, I wasn't really sure how Microsoft should respond to the Apple barbs. (And while it took over a year, the company eventually did respond, to varying levels of success, in a series of ads and promotions, culminating in the awesome "I'm a PC" ads, which made Apple look petty, insular, and exclusive.)

But the wider issue here one of responsibility. It's easy to criticize, to point out the mistakes you believe others have made. And on the Internet, especially, such criticism is often anonymous and cheap, without merit.

When I look back over the past decade with Microsoft, I see lots of missed opportunities. I see some great products, yes, but looked at very generally, the 2000s was the time when Microsoft ceded control of the tech industry, control it now shares with other, faster-moving companies such as Apple and Google. There is no doubt--none at all--that Microsoft will continue into the future as an enormous, financially successful superpower. But my concern as a technology enthusiast is that Microsoft, by ceasing to lead, will cease to be interesting or, worse, relevant.

We can argue over why this happened--many believe that the software giant's antitrust tribulations hobbled the company, leaving it a shadow of its former self. I've come to believe that it's a bit more nuanced than that, that Microsoft's creeping hugeness has resulted in a corporate hierarchy that is so large and bloated that it simply can't get anything done quickly. And that the most obvious example of this calcification was the disastrous Longhorn project, which began life as Microsoft's most exciting OS initiative of all time and then ended with the hated Vista version. (You can find out more about this theory in my article, Microsoft And The Antitrust Myth.)

Understanding the cause of a problem is, of course, important. But it's only a first step. Once you've identified that there is a problem, the goal should be to solve it. And this is of course the area in which professional critics such as myself have always come up short. I've been pointing out my belief that there is a problem for years. But how can we fix this problem? How can Microsoft fix this problem?

The truth is, I really don't know. But helped by the Twittersphere and listeners of the Windows Weekly podcast, I've assembled a list of often-contradictory suggestions that should at least trigger some debate. Do I expect Microsoft to implement any of these changes? No. Do I believe that any of these changes can "save" Microsoft from a fate that perhaps only I believe would be catastrophic? Again, no. But let's start the conversation at least.

I faced a number of issues while compiling this list. On purpose and with forethought, I stayed away from overly-specific fixes for individual products. (Such as, "Microsoft should make it possible to download photos from Windows Phone using Windows Live Photo Gallery.") These suggestions have a place, but I'm talking big picture stuff here. This is more conceptual than specific.

Second, while I could absolutely wring out a 12-part Thurrott super-opus, where each "fix" got its own page and 2,000 word treatment, I wanted to make sure people actually read this. So rather than go in depth about each proposed "fix," I have instead provided just a short write-up for each. Hopefully, this will make it more digestible, if less thorough.

Third, there's an argument to be made that Microsoft doesn't need "fixing." We're talking about a super colossus here, remember, that generates billions of revenues every single quarter like clockwork. There are huge parts of Microsoft--I'd single out the server teams (Windows plus all the other on premise servers), the cloud stuff (Azure, Office 365/BPOS, Windows Intune, and so on), Office, and Windows client, among others--that are firing on all cylinders are pumping out amazing products and services. And there are other parts of Microsoft that actually generate real, live consumer buzz (primarily Xbox, though I've often voiced my doubts about this business's long term viability). Microsoft isn't a giant sinkhole. Lots of Microsoft is doing just great, thank you very much.

And finally, I still want your feedback. This can't possibly represent the final word on a topic as vast and ever-changing as this. (In the last week alone, Microsoft has announced its intention to purchase Skype for a staggering amount of money, proof yet again that this industry is always changing.) So I'd like this to be the start of a discussion. The trouble is, this site is awaiting a future CMS update before you can comment on the article. So please visit my related blog post, Discussing How Microsoft Can Fix Microsoft, to expand on the ideas here, complain about them, and discuss them generally.  You know, if you want to.

With all that in mind, let's dive in. Here are some ways in which I feel Microsoft could and should fix itself. In no particular order...

You're a business software maker, deal with it

While Microsoft dreams of Apple-style successes with consumers, the truth is, with only one exception, consumers don't care about Microsoft in the slightest. Yes, hundreds of millions of consumers use Windows, and millions more use products like Hotmail, Windows Live and so on, most of this usage is devoid of any sense of advocacy or love. (As we see with Apple's products for example.) These things are tools, not aspirational products. So admit this and move on. People will continue to use Windows because it's the best OS and it comes on cheaper PCs with more choice. Don't pretend there are other reasons. No one buys Windows to edit movies or watch TV shows. It's just nice that stuff like that is there.

Microsoft does, of course, make one successful consumer product, at least from a perception standpoint. And that's the Xbox 360, a product that has so little to do with Microsoft's core products, that there's only one course of action here: Spin it off, and let it go out and succeed (or not) on its own. Microsoft could retain a majority interest in the new company, I suppose, but really, the details don't matter: Microsoft is only holding Xbox back, and Xbox has nothing to do with Microsoft. So cry and hug and say goodbye.

Separate the wheat from the chaff

Microsoft's one-time strategy was what Google does now: Use a few hugely successful products to subsidize the development and continuing investment in dozens of other products, entering new markets and pushing the company into unknown futures. This strategy has rarely worked with products that stray too far from Microsoft's core, so while things like Office, Windows Server, various server products, and now cloud-based versions of those servers all worked out just fine because they're all basically the same kind of thing as Windows, as you move out further from the core, you see less and less success. (Again, Xbox 360 is arguably the one exception here, though I think a case could be made that Xbox has been nothing but a drag on Microsoft financially.)

Microsoft needs to figure out what works and keep what's successful, and be aggressive about trimming out the products that are not successful. And the way it does this is by evaluating this success on a product by product basis and not allowing successful products to subsidize the dogs beyond an initial three year (or whatever) "startup" phase. If it's not working, just kill it.


When I first started covering Microsoft in the mid-1990's everyone there, it seemed, was a program manager or a product manager. Today, virtually everyone at Microsoft seems to have some kind of "vice president" wording in their titles. But regardless of the breakdown, one thing is inescapable: Microsoft is too big, with too many employees, and too many levels of corporate hierarchy, all of which works to suppress innovation, kill good ideas before they can be implemented, and create warring fiefdoms in which product groups fight each other instead of products from other companies.

My take on employment at Microsoft--which has been confirmed by dozens of current and former Microsofties--is that you sign up expecting to change the world, get beat down by the endless infighting and corporate hierarchy and then end up just punching the clock, collecting a salary and benefits while nothing gets done. They mean well. It's just that most aren't empowered.

Realizing it was heading down a similar path, Google recently retrenched, cut away at levels of hierarchy and sped up the decision making process. (And they were already moving much more quickly than Microsoft!!) The software giant could learn from its competitors and simplify its own business, cull executives and hierarchy, and speed decision making. It's overdue. The creeping size of Microsoft is killing it from within.

Feel fear

Microsoft and its employees are far too comfortable, which is amazing given the very real threats to its business. They need to feel fear, and move with alacrity, and not just punch a clock. I've made the observation many times over the years that Microsoft does its best work when its back is against a wall and it has to actually compete. There are numerous examples of what happens when Microsoft has no competition: It artificially bundles IE in Windows, destroying the stability, reliability and security of the once-mighty NT. And then it lets IE 6 languish for several long years while quicker competitors--in this case Firefox--move in to destroy IE's market share. (It's been in free fall ever since.)

Today, Microsoft is being chipped away by competitors from all sides, like a mighty shark being taken down by a pack of hungry piranhas. (Don't get distracted by the impossibility of this scenario, it's just a comparison.) You'd think this would alarm people. But instead of alacrity, we see the Windows Phone guys asleep at the switch, floundering with tiny updates for the most innovative smart phone system on the planet. (There are always exceptions. The IE team's decision to move to quicker, less monolithic updates is exactly the kind of response I expect to changing market conditions. The rest of the company should emulate that at the very least.)

Move more quickly

This may be my single biggest pet peeve about Microsoft. While there are obvious exceptions, the company simply moves to slowly, whether it's entering new markets, updating existing products, or whatever. (Note that this is true only for consumer oriented products: When you look at the company's core business products, especially on the server/cloud side, I think a case can be made that Microsoft is moving quite fast indeed.)

Some of the other suggestions here would contribute to fixing this problem, of course. But I would point to Google and, to a slightly lesser extent, Apple as examples of companies that deliver new products and product updates on a far more aggressive schedule. This is what consumers expect today and if you're not doing it, that's one of many reasons they're ignoring you. Remember the phrase "Internet time"? That's too slow now.

Split up the company

I've often pointed out that Microsoft is so big that the very notion of there being "a Microsoft" is ludicrous. This is instead a collection of often massive warring fiefdoms that don't just ignore each other but in some notable cases actually actively work against each other. Even more problematic, perhaps, Microsoft's businesses are so diverse that many have nothing to do with each other. So my advice is to split up this company into two or three "baby Microsofts," perhaps along consumer, business, and developer lines. As noted before, splitting off Xbox is a minimum.

Learn better branding

Microsoft's ridiculous branding schemes are infamous enough that I suppose this doesn't require much discussion. OK, what the heck. Only Microsoft could tack "Windows Live" on the front of everything, ruining simple, fun brands like Hotmail in the process. (More pragmatically, finding a tool like Windows Live Photo Gallery in a sea of product names that start with "Windows Live" in the Windows Start Menu is a cruel joke.) Or name a product "Microsoft Visual Studio Team System 2008 Team Foundation Server with SQL Server 2005 Technology" or "Microsoft Forefront Client Security Management Console with SQL Server 2005 Technology." Seriously, people.

Branding matters, a lot. Avalon was cool, Windows Presentation Foundation is not. Longhorn? Awesome. Windows Vista Home Premium 32-Bit Upgrade Edition? Terrible. (Imagine if Microsoft just called the thing Windows Longhorn, as Apple names things like Mac OS X Lion. Perfect.)

Branding is also hard, and there are actually examples where Microsoft curiously decided not to tack Windows or Windows Live on the front of something (maybe Bill Gates was on vacation that week) and actually came up with a unique brand. The trouble is, some work, some don't: Xbox worked, Zune did not. Bing? Still up in the air, but the simple fact that many people still think of "Chandler Bing" when they hear this name--seven long years after "Friends" went off the air--is perhaps a bad sign.

Fire Steve Ballmer

Microsoft's official stance on Steve Ballmer is that he's presided over a decade of ... well, something positive. The reality is, alas, quite different. And without rehashing the same tired arguments, I'm beginning to come around to the notion that Microsoft really does need some kind of change at the top. That said, replacing Ballmer is no easy task, and while it's not the monumental (impossible, really) problem that the software giant confronted when Bill Gates left, Microsoft's need for new leadership will require a team, not an individual.

But Microsoft doesn't need a business guy at the top. It needs people who understand technology. So on that note, I present my choices for this leadership team: Mark Russinovich, who possesses a titanic technical genius, and Steven Sinofsky, who may be the ultimate manager of engineers.

By the way, Bill Gates is not coming back, so get over it.

Start over from scratch

Apple and Google have had great success bringing a technically new and low-end product (iOS, in the iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad) "up" market from small devices to bigger, mainstream computing devices. Microsoft is now trying to move in the opposite direction with Windows on the client. That's a mistake. Instead, it should start with a smaller, componentized, simplified version of Windows and build up from that to create tablet, notebook, and desktop versions of the OS.

It's worth mentioning that some parts of Microsoft already get this. Microsoft's servers are already transitioning to superior, cloud-based services, and those business units are using this migration as an excuse to get things right this time. So architecturally and from a user experience standpoint, these new products are in fact new, technically superior, and simpler to use. Brilliant. So this advice applies only to client version of Windows and other end user products.

Stop smothering good ideas

There's obviously some cross-over here with my previous comments about corporate hierarchy and whatnot, but Microsoft needs to say Yes to good ideas more frequently. This can only happen within an organization that actually listens and rewards the forward thinkers. You know, places like Apple and Google.

Microsoft has done this, but it's rare. My favorite example is the Office ribbon user interface, which revolutionized a product that everyone thought was doomed to an eternity of minor functional updates. The ribbon was hugely successful, and it really works. (Of course, Microsoft being Microsoft, they'll screw this one up too and apply the ribbon to apps that don't need it, drowning us in top-heavy UI that doesn't make sense in every situation. One size does not fit all.)

Sweat the details

Windows 7 was successful because it took a solid foundation from Vista and cleaned it up and simplified it. But even Windows 7 lacks detail-orientation, with a mélange of user interfaces both new and old. So it's better. But it's not refined enough.

This is the type of thing Apple gets right, or at least gets it better. (Not perfect though. Even the beloved OS X is marred by some curiously inconsistent and scatter-brained UIs.)

Detail orientation doesn't just apply to UI, of course. Consider all the Microsoft-oriented media players that now exist, including Windows Media Center, Windows Media Player, and Zune. Why are there three of these things, each slightly different? No one uses any of them, so if you're going to waste our time with this stuff at least whittle it down to a single application. And then give it a craptacular name like Windows Live Media Zune Player 2012. You know someone suggested it.

Don't be afraid to copy

You can't invent it all, Microsoft. And most critics believe you didn't invent an iota of it anyway. Truth is, many of Microsoft's best products are simply good implementations of other products. And you know what? It's great: Bringing technology to the masses is nothing to be ashamed of. So do more of this. We need a Windows embedded tablet, now. We need a Windows Phone with all iPhone features, now. If it's not the same or better (or much cheaper), what's the point? And by the way, Apple rips off Microsoft ideas all the time and never gets any crap for it. It's not just OK, it's good business.

Recognize when to partner and when not to partner

Microsoft rocketed to fame and fortune by partnering with hardware companies. This was true in the beginning, when it created a version of BASIC (and other programming languages) for every single micro-computer and PC every made. It was even more true when the PC market erupted: All of them ran a version of MS-DOS and, later, Windows.

The thing is, Microsoft has a bad habit of simply aping a previously successful strategy when it enters new markets. It did this with mobile devices (PDAs, smart phones, and now tablets) and it did it with video games, though few people remember it: The first Xbox, really, was arguably Sega's Dreamcast. And as history has shown us, the partner strategy only works some of the time. Sometimes you need to stand alone.

I'd also point out that some of Microsoft's biggest partners are all invested in other platforms now. For example, the world's biggest PC maker, HP, is now starting to push webOS first as a dual-boot thing with Windows on PCs. But you know where this is going to end up if HP is successful. And it's not just HP. Dell and many other companies have jumped on the Android bandwagon. And they'll all drop Microsoft like a bad habit when and if that other stuff gets big enough.

So why does Microsoft protect these goons when they obviously aren't returning the favor? Why did it hand AT&T the keys to the kingdom by allowing it, and not the users of Windows Phone, to determine when software updates can be delivered to their devices?

More to the point, who wouldn't want to purchase a Microsoft-branded Windows Phone? Or PC? You look at the Xbox 360 and you see what could be. Make it so.

Embrace your past and port to all successful platforms

Microsoft used to release all of its best software for all major computing platforms. With the world changing to be more heterogeneous, Microsoft needs to return to its roots, evaluate the real world (not its imaginary Microsoft-only fantasy world), and start porting its most popular software to the most popular platforms. Yes, please, do pull an Apple and make sure it's always better on Windows. In fact, that should be a requirement. But port it, early and often.

I'm talking full-blown versions of Microsoft Office on iPhone, iPad, and Android. Xbox LIVE games. Go nuts, guys. The world is heterogeneous now. But you know this.

Really embrace the cloud

To be fair, Microsoft really is embracing the cloud. But I'm thinking more along the lines of software delivery. Much of the software giant's client catalog--Windows, Office and Xbox 360 games, for example--is delivered primarily on physical media, like it was 1995 again. Let's rid the world of boxed software, Microsoft. Make it all electronic. Don't just move to the cloud. Be in the cloud.

And yes, I know there are holdouts, digital Luddites that actually like to wander around Best Buy like homeless people. For this crowd, just sell hard plastic cards like Xbox LIVE Microsoft Points cards you see in retail stores. These cards could be purchased and would provide a download URL and product ID to the purchaser, who would go home, download the software, enter the code from the card, and get on with life.

Since we're reaching for the stars here, let's end the silly licensing restrictions for individuals while we're at it. When you buy it, you own it, and you can install it on any PC. This is the new baseline, thanks to the Mac App Store. And it's overdue.

Go on a buying spree

While many people have criticized Microsoft's recent decision to purchase Skype at what appears to be an 800 percent premium, at least they're putting themselves out there and making a big bet. Surely, this move deserves some respect, since it suggests that someone at Microsoft actually believes they need to do ... something.

With this in mind, Microsoft needs to go on a buying spree, spend its cash assets until there's nothing left, and then integrate the hell out of what they bought. If you can't build it in-house, go get it. I'm talking about Twitter for starters. Then Adobe. Then, when it's fallen hard enough, RIM and/or Nokia. You can't build everything, Microsoft. And you don't have to.


So there you go. None of this will do a thing, I guess. Or will it? Let me know.

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