When I read Kelly Sheridan’s article, “Microsoft at 40: 5 Successes, 5 Failures”, what struck me was how selective and shallow it was. Here are the “successes” she lists:
- Windows 95
- Microsoft Office
- Windows XP
- Microsoft 10
and here are the “failures”
- The mobile market
- Microsoft Windows Vista
- Microsoft Zune
- Windows 8
Rather than critique each of those picks let me propose what I’d consider Microsoft’s greatest successes and failures of the last 40 years. Successes first.
Convincing people that buggy software was normal and acceptable
For the last three decades at least Microsoft has had a tremendous ability to convince people that software that was released prematurely should just be accepted. Burroughs was driven out of business by software that was no worse than some versions of MS-DOS or Microsoft Windows. IMO this is Microsoft’s primary gift and I really don’t understand how they do it.
Releasing new versions until they succeed
A related genius of Microsoft is its ability to just keep producing new versions of software until a product actually takes root, a process that describes practically every product that Microsoft has ever succeeded with. DOS had some versions that were total flops. The first actually usable version of Windows was 3.1. Before Microsoft Word and Microsoft Excel there were Multi-Tool Word and Multiplan. The list goes on.
I think it was Winston Churchill who said that success consists in failing repeatedly without losing heart. If any company embodies that, it must be Microsoft.
The ability to change course
Microsoft has engaged in an enormous number of major course corrections over the years: deciding to be an operating systems company rather than an applications and development tools company, embracing networking, embracing the Internet, and now embracing mobile computing. Frequently these course corrections have been undertaken with all the appearances of panic but somehow the company has managed to weather the storm. This ability of Microsoft’s is truly amazing.
One of the reasons Microsoft has been able to use the strategy outlined above is that it has bundled its products together. Microsoft Basic was bundled with DOS as was MS-Works. Internet Explorer was bundled with Microsoft Windows 95 (ultimately). Windows has a long list of programs bundled with it that we have come to expect but are actually add-on products that aren’t part of an operating system.
Convincing people they were technology leaders
Microsoft is not now and never has been a technology leader. Its foundation product was a not particularly good Basic interpreter. It didn’t develop DOS—somebody else did that. The Microsoft products that were developed by other companies include DOS, Works, Internet Explorer, and SQL Server, just to name a few. Other products, e.g. Windows, Zune, were “me, too” products. I believe that Word incorporated the codebase of an earlier Xerox word processing product but I don’t think I could ever prove that. It is known that several versions of Windows incorporated public domain networking software into the operating system kernel.
Microsoft operating systems have never been technology leaders. Microsoft didn’t invent the integrated applications suite but it capitalized the heck out of the idea.
Now I’ll list some failures.
Settling for the middle
Microsoft concentrated for so many years on the middle of the computer marketplace it lost the high ends and low ends, turning its products into niche products.
Losing the operating system wars
For decades Microsoft’s objective was to be the dominant operating system company. Today most computers use something other than a Microsoft operating system while Windows continues to dominate the desktop. Desktop (and desktop-replacement) sales have been flat for almost a decade. That marketplace isn’t dead but it isn’t a growth segment, either. Although the next failure in this list illustrates an attempt to change that, I don’t believe it will be successful.
For decades the preferred Microsoft user interface was based on something developed by IBM called the CUA/SAA architecture (Common User Access/System Application Architecture). That’s the familiar menu bar, files menu, etc. user interface so many people have learned (that they have learned it makes it “intuitive”). Windows 8 incorporated something called the Metro development architecture (or language). This is yet another example of Microsoft’s pushing something that’s flopped in the past (they’ve been promoting aspects of Metro for 20 years). I don’t think they’ll succeed this time.
I would be remiss in any discussion of Microsoft’s failures without mentioning the company’s early hostility to networking and the Internet. The latter resulted in the panicked release of a service pack for Windows 95 that included Internet Explorer and its bundling of IE into all successive versions of Windows both as an application and (I believe) at a deeper level. Microsoft turned those two early failures into successes in remarkably nimble turnarounds. Note that every “success” except the premature inclusion of Windows 10 in Ms. Sheridan’s list is 14 or more years old. We’ll see if Microsoft is still “the comeback kid”.
There are a couple of things I wanted to work into that post but neglected to that I’ll mentioned here. The first is one of Microsoft’s major successes: Wintel. For twenty-five years Microsoft and Intel were able to strategize their developments to mutual benefit. Not only that but major releases of Microsoft operating systems goosed sales for the entire computer industry. That relationship among Microsoft, Intel, and the computer industry as a whole seems to have broken down. I don’t know why.
Finally, there’s a phrase used to describe much of what Ms. Sheridan characterizes as Microsoft’s “failures”: “the Microsoft curse”. Every other major release of Windows is a flop. I think that epitomizes something more basic about the company which I’d speculate is that there’s a conflict between what Microsoft needs to do to keep its stock value up and what it is able to achieve realistically in its development cycle. In essence I think its schedule for issuing major releases is injuring the Microsoft brand.