Microsoft’s Problems: More than One Man Deep

Probably a lot of people, both now and in the future, are going to say that Steve Ballmer’s departure from Microsoft was “the end of an era”.  Certainly in a management continuity sense that was true; Ballmer was Gates’ heir apparent after all, so he was a continuation of the original Microsoft.  What’s not certain is whether the original Microsoft has ended.  If it hasn’t, then Microsoft is in big trouble.

Another thing a lot of people are going to say is that Microsoft wasn’t “innovative” and that’s not true IMHO.  Microsoft had all the pieces of the mobile-device pie in place, had an early insight into the cloud, had street creds in all of the critical innovations of our time, at least as early as some who are now known for “developing” the spaces.  The thing that hurt Microsoft was that classic need to trade off some of the present to seize the future.  Behind every Microsoft innovation was the shadow of Windows, and Microsoft could never get out of it.

I don’t see much value in reprising how Microsoft got to where they are except in a narrow sense to weave the tale of how they might get out of it.  If you spent too long looking out the Windows (so to speak) then you’ve got to turn away and do something else, and that raises two questions.  First, what else?  Second, is it too late for any steps to save Microsoft.

If you polled the masses for where Microsoft needed to go, you’d likely get “the cloud” and “wearable tech” as your answers.  I think that underneath it all, these are faces of the same coin.  As technology becomes more portable, it’s not surprising that you’d start to take it with you.  If you do, then you’re likely to weave it into your life more intimately than you’d weave something that was nailed to your desk somewhere.  If you do that, it becomes an information conduit to some broader infrastructure—the cloud—and it’s also helpful to have those tech elements integrated in some way with what you normally have and wear while romping about.

The point here is that smart appliances creates a new behavioral revolution, tech-wise, and it’s that revolution that Microsoft has to play.  What happens to how we live, entertain ourselves, work, play, think, decide, when we have an awesome agent clipped to our belt or in our pocket or on our wrist or nose?  This is the stuff Microsoft needed to be thinking about, and still needs to plan for in some way.  The PC was a more distributable form of computing than the mini, which was a more distributable form of the mainframe.  We still have mainframes and minis, but as we move to smaller and more portable devices we shift our behavior to accommodate a more intimate interaction with technology.  Microsoft wanted to see the future as the PC versus these things, and had IBM done that when PCs first came along they’d likely be bought by somebody else by now.  Which could happen to Microsoft, in the extreme.

So what does Microsoft need to do?  Start with the behavior and not with the device.  How exactly will people change their lives based on portable technology?  We know that whatever it is, it will present itself as device agents for cloud knowledge and power.  That means a new software architecture, a new network architecture, new devices.  If I have a phone and a tablet and a watch and glasses that are all empowered, do I have to contort myself into a knot to look at them all in quick sequence?  Imagine walking down the street in a crowd where everybody’s doing that; it boggles the mind what Times Square might look like.  So you likely have to see wearable tech as a dynamic ecosystem.  That’s a space where the Apple’s and Google’s haven’t got all the answers yet, so Microsoft could do something there too.  All of these behavioral impacts create opportunities, but all of the opportunities don’t endure forever.  It’s too late to have a tablet success, or a phone success, Microsoft.  You need to have a behavior success.

All of this is true for the rest of the IT and network industry as well.  For Intel and other chip makers, we’re moving into a time when the big-money items will be on the polar extremes of the tech space—little chips that run at lower power and can be integrated into devices, and big behemoth knowledge-crunching technology suitable for a cloud data center.  The new model makes a lot of middle ground go away and there’s nothing that can be done to save it.

In networking we know that the most critical development will be a “subduction” of the Internet into an agent-cloud model.  That was already happening with icons and apps and widgets and so forth.  Nobody can effectively use behaviorally empowering technology if they have to spend ten minutes entering search terms.  They have to have shortcuts that link whim to fulfillment.  That’s interesting because it reshapes the most basic notion of the Internet itself—a link between an address and a desired outcome.  You go to a site for something, but if you can’t really “go” in a direct sense, what happens network-wise.  And how is it paid for, because ads displayed on watches don’t seem to offer much potential?

The world is changing because of tech, which is no surprise (or shouldn’t be) because it’s been changing since the computer burst on the commercial scene in the 1950s.  Microsoft’s success in the future, and the success of every network operator, network vendor, and IT vendor, will depend on its ability to jump ahead of the change not try to replicate the steps that have driven it along.  The past already happened; it won’t happen again.

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