Microsoft: Still unclear on the concept

I was going to call this post “Decoding the Microsoft memo,” but my friend Kara Swisher has that kind of trademarked already, and I don’t want to owe her any more money than I already do. But reading through the missive from CEO Steve Ballmer that she has posted made me long for someone who could translate it into English, because I don’t think Monkey Boy and I are speaking the same language. It’s not just the egregious use of euphemisms either; there are points where what Steve is saying — about the separation of the Platforms and Services division into two units, for example — shows a fundamental confusion about what Microsoft wants to be when it grows up.

I can’t remember whether Steve used to work at a car company before he joined Bill Gates at Microsoft (I’m pretty sure he worked at Procter & Gamble) but there sure is a lot of talk in the memo about driving. One of the company’s core goals, for example, is to “drive end-user excitement for our products.” My translation of that would be: “Come up with some way to force people to buy Vista and Office, whether they want to or not.” What the hell does “drive end-user excitement” even mean? I’m hoping it has something to do with building better products, but it’s hard to know for sure. Sounds like a blank cheque for the marketing department to come up with some happy videos of families smiling and using Vista to make Grandma a birthday card.

A couple of paragraphs later, Ballmer says that the company needs to “drive developers to create rich applications for Windows” to help promote Silverlight (Microsoft’s version of Adobe’s AIR). How do you “drive developers” to do something? Obviously there are incentives you can offer, but it seems to me that the best way to convince developers to come up with cool apps is to have a great platform that allows developers to do interesting things and reaches the audience they want. Apple seems to have developers beating down its door for access to the iPhone, despite the fact that it often treats developers like crap.

Just a few paragraphs later, when Steve is talking about software and services (which is what Microsoft calls “software as a service” or Web-based applications) he refers to “driving change in business models through advertising, subscriptions, and online transactions.” Once again, it sounds like Microsoft believes it can force people to do things through the correct application of pressure, incentives, marketing, etc. More than anything else, it sounds like a memo from some government ministry in a centrally-planned economy. The people say they don’t want more potatoes? Then we must “drive change in potato-consumption models through taxation and random beatings.”

I more or less skipped over the parts about competing with Google by “out-innovating” them through “organic innovation,” which I think refers to a secret recombinant plant-DNA program Microsoft has going in upstate Seattle. And I can’t bear to talk about the part where Steve discusses the Yahoo debacle, which he describes as “a tactic, not a strategy.” Parse that one if you dare — I’m not going to. But towards the end, Ballmer talks about splitting Platforms and Services in two, and says there will now be the Windows/Windows Live unit and the Online Services unit. He might as well have said that the company has decided to set up one unit called the Ego and another one called the Id.

You might think that the Windows Live unit — which has to do with Windows Live Mail (formerly Hotmail) as well as the newer online Office-type offerings — would fit pretty well with something called Online Services, but you would be wrong. Online Services, as far as I can tell, has to do with search and advertising and MSN, all things that are more or less either weak or failing. The Windows Live business is aimed at pushing more of Microsoft’s products online in some form or other, whereas the Online Services unit is focused on taking things that already exist online and somehow making them work better. The fact that Microsoft sees those two goals as mutually exclusive says a lot — it’s like the embodiment of the company’s bipolar disorder.

But don’t worry about Microsoft’s future — Steve says he is putting things in place to “drive the next generation of growth and success.”

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