Ah yes, remember the days when we could only make fun of Steve Ballmer because of his on-stage antics? Now that he’s been replaced with Satya Nadella, Ballmer’s unique way of motivating and running Microsoft will hopefully be retired along with him. For years, the company has been an evolutionary crockpot, where only the strong projects with powerful managers survived.
The company remains beholden to this ultra-competitive vision: the Xbox group is basically a separate entity at Microsoft, resented by the business side for stealing resources from more important enterprise needs. The consumer side of Microsoft also remains strongly divorced from the enterprise side, as is well evidenced by the current state of the Windows operating system and ecosystem.
While server-side innovation and developer tooling sucked all the budget out of the room, the regular old flagship products at Microsoft (Windows and Office) lost a lot more traction in the marketplace than they probably should have.
Blame Apple’s insanely great growth. Blame Google Docs and OpenOffice for diminishing the death-grip of Office upon the workaday human. Or, blame Ballmer’s laser-focus on what he considered to be the battlegrounds for the company.
Can you blame him? When he took over, Windows has something like 90% to 95% of the desktop market share, but only around 50% of the server market for Web servers and storage systems, and an even lower percentage for the corporate database markets.
With numbers like that on your side, how could you possibly spend any money on growth unless it was spent on enterprise software?
Unfortunately, the march of time kept Microsoft from growing much on the server-side. In fact, the company’s footholds there have shrunk considerably, while open-source solutions like the Apache Web server demolished the market share of IIS.
Meanwhile, Microsoft found new server-side markets to invade, all the while floundering in new consumer-side markets. The Xbox, despite all of its successes, contributed little to the bottom line due to the need to subsidize console sales, and the fact that none of the Xbox branding touched Windows or Microsoft’s other consumer brands.
Well, wait. Xbox did touch Zune, and Xbox Live eventually was ported to Windows. But we all know the Zune went nowhere, and anyone who has tried Games for Windows Live has immediately tried to uninstall the software. So abysmal is Games for Windows Live that most games utilizing it will not do so for their sequels, and some developers have even considered going back and ripping GFWL support out of their games so they could re-launch using Steam as a player matching service.
And do we really have to discuss Windows Phone?
This is all emblematic of Microsoft’s roots. The company was originally created for developers, by developers. Their development tools continue to be utterly top notch. Their server-side tools, also, benefit from years of user interface design experience inside the company, to the point that any old fool can administrate SQL Server enough to save the day when a backup needs to be restored, or when the data needs to be copied onto a new server.
Unfortunately, everything else Microsoft does is outside of its core competencies. The fact that Windows was the default desktop OS for years was all just a result of the masterful business dealings of Bill Gates, and the famous story of QDOS.
Look at Windows phone. It’s a nice OS, easy to use, but the fundamental problem is that Microsoft didn’t have a quasi-monopoly in the space, and thus they didn’t get adoption. And things are just getting worse. Windows Phone’s app store is now clogged with gunk and shamware. There are a half dozen Facebook apps, three versions of Firefox, a couple versions of Chrome—none of which are official, all of which are paid-for apps that amount to little more than an embedded browser, or a port of an open-source project that’s available for free elsewhere.
Add to this the fact that Microsoft won’t let you modify your app store offerings unless you’ve re-upped your developer subscriptions. That means there are people selling apps right now in the Windows Phone app store who have absolutely no ability to update their application, remove it, edit the text of its description, or modify its price.
And Microsoft wants to bring this delightful app store experience to the Windows Desktop? Nadella’s got a tough row to hoe ahead of him. But at least we can be sure he won’t be dancing around like a dervish.