on the rudderless boat called microsoft

sinking-microsoft-boatYesterday, Geof Harries, posted this to Twitter:

What so many applications lack is not good UX design or programming, but rather a product vision that guides every single decision

That got me thinking about  Microsoft’s current problems: they are the result of the company’s lack of a cohesive strategy. In so many ways, from their operating system, to their desktop software, to their mobile and cloud computing efforts, the company seems to lack a solid plan of action.

The source of this deficit appears to be the company’s CEO, Steve Ballmer. He’s a man who has demonstrated that he’s capable of all form of flippant, ignorant, and misleading remark. From foolishly dismissing the iPhone outright to pathetically howling like a wounded animal in front of a huge crowd (“Give it up for me!“), this man seems more bully than boss.

This was most recently demonstrated during a second quarter call when he openly contradicted Microsoft’s chief financial officer Chris Liddell’s report that the company is laying off 5,000 employees. Retorted Ballmer: “Even as we take out 5,000 jobs, we’ll be adding a few thousand jobs…” Now that’s just plain confusing. Or, as the Register commented, “It was like the right hand not knowing – or not caring – what the left was doing.”

What’s more, Microsoft watcher Joe Wilcox reports that Ballmer’s company, “will offer no forward guidance for the remainder of fiscal 2009. Clearly, the global economic crisis has become a Microsoft crisis.” (Quick Take: Microsoft Earnings, Layoffs)

All that and a $4 billion dip in Windows revenue? Were I a Microsoft investor, I’d be worried.

I would posit that, as Geof’s point suggests, strategic confusion is the cause for Microsoft’s stumble. The company seems to be running madly off in all directions on a number of product fronts, without any form of solid leadership or cohesive vision. The company’s products themselves don’t (always) suck; they’re collectively just a grab bag of miscellaneous, disconnected efforts.

Take the minor but evolving desktop-cloud document syncing category. Microsoft currently has not less than three unique and completely disparate solutions on the go in this category: Windows Live Sync, Live Mesh, and Windows Live SkyDrive. Each offers a slightly different solution to the problem of keeping documents in sync between a mobile environment and multiple desktop of notebook PCs. And while they all fall under the same Windows Live brand umbrella, there is absolutely no interoperability between them.

Windows Live Sync, for example, is primarily a desktop client with a web-based conduit that manages document synchronization between two or more Macs and PCs. With Live Sync, documents are never stored on the web. Rather, the web application manages the transfer of data between computers. I’ve written about Live Sync before, when it was called FolderShare (Share, Children! Forcing Mac and Windows to Be Friends and Keeping Mac OS X and Windows in Sync).

Live Mesh, on the other hand, is a more integrated tool that offers a web-based storage environment that also maintains sync between documents on one or more PCs and Macs.

And finally, SkyDrive is a simpler tool that provides users with a web-only storage environment for their files. There is no desktop tool, so a user has to manually upload files into the SkyDrive environment using a web browser. This is really a reaction to (and direct competitor of) Box.net.

While these services don’t do the same thing exactly, there is a considerable degree of overlap between them. Microsoft is putting a tremendous amount of engineering time and energy, network bandwidth, electrical power, and server resources into doing the same thing three times over. What’s more, none of these services generate any revenue: all are 100% expense. During a recession (or, sorry Steve, a “reset”), such gross redundancy is remarkable. 

But more to the point, Microsoft’s indecisiveness on a solution to this one aspect of the cloud computing paradigm leads me to believe that it’s a company that just doesn’t understand this important new paradigm at all. And this inability to chart a course threatens the credibility of the company not only in terms of its fiscal responsibility and user trust, but also in terms of its ability to be a leader in an emerging new cloud computing category.

Cloud computing is the future. Microsoft is already late to the game, and they are clearly having trouble deciding on a strategic approach. And this is just one aspect of the company’s direction – or lack thereof – overall.

A new, pretty Windows 7 won’t mean much if Ballmer can’t steer his company out of this rut provide a clear strategic vision that segues with the future of the industry.

One thought on “on the rudderless boat called microsoft

  1. Thanks Andrew. If Twitter allowed more than 140 characters, this is along the lines of what I would have written. The problem of strategy before execution is applicable to any organization selling products or services.

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