Well, Microsoft finally
. The WinPen, no, Pocket PC, nope, XP Tablet, huh-uh, Smart Display, ha,
Project Origami, oops, Courier, nada.
I refer, obviously, to
the Surface, Microsoft’s vision of the future that was released yesterday. No,
wait, in 2008
. And it’s not so much released as it’s teased
Microsoft deserves all of
the sarcastic comments that can be thrown at it. They’ve been working on the
basic current tablet form for over a decade, and in the meantime, Apple’s angle
from the old Newton line
not only came to market first, but the iPhone
reconfigured the entire cell phone industry, and the iPad actually exists, now,
in the present. For sale. By the time the Mac had been out for five years in the 1980s, Microsoft was already out with version 2 of Windows.
I’ve been working on a long
piece ever since I started chewing on the whole Windows RT is called Windows
but doesn’t-run-Windows-software-except-when-it-does strategy announcement. The
reason is that for all the poking-fun to be had here, I think Microsoft really
is moving forward with an innovative approach trying to transition to the next stage of computing
, in stark contrast to most other companies (and most other
industries, for that matter).
The short of the story is
that the initial personal computing paradigm that developed in the late 1970s
and early 1980s was a time of vibrant innovation and competition. What’s so
remarkable about the business of the computer industry is that virtually every
company died. Apple and Microsoft are basically the only two major companies that
survived with any meaningful level of influence, and one way of understanding
that survival is that they both were able to transition from an initial
successful product to a second, improved product.
Same end result, but they
got there in very different ways. Apple reinvested earnings from the Apple line
of computers into the Macintosh line of computers. Microsoft leveraged its
market power in MS-DOS to transfer market power to Windows.
Apple’s strategy is
repeatable: a company can continually improve the customer experience over a
very long period of time, if that is the focus of the company from the top down.
Indeed, that’s what a market-based system of political economy is supposed to
However, Microsoft was
dependent upon a unique set of circumstances, a perfect alignment of the stars.
Odds are that the legal, business, and technological environment of the 1980s
will never appear again. Microsoft, unique among all of the tech companies,
didn’t make ‘computers’ – they only made the operating system. It was IBM’s
brand in corporate America, not anything technological in MS-DOS, that gave
Microsoft market power. It’s also important not to forget Intel in the story,
since the 1990s were really a Wintel duopoly more than a Windows monopoly. For three decades,
Microsoft has sold MS-DOS and then Windows not to consumers, but to
manufacturers, because being compatible with the IBM standard was paramount.
Today, IBM no longer even
makes personal computers, and corporate buying represents a smaller overall
share of computing purchases. Accessing networks (such as the internet, wi-fi,
and cellular communications) and providing mobile form factors are the primary
tasks assigned to an increasing number of devices. There are also a much
greater number of users who have made their mobile computing choices today than
had made their personal computing choices a quarter century ago. Microsoft’s
challenge is how to make the next transition, how to be relevant in the mobile computing paradigm
and beyond (assuming, of course, it wants to do that).
Does it try to leverage
the market power of Windows to sell manufacturers on the next product, or does
it try to make a device itself that will appeal directly to consumers? Both
strategies are interesting, and personally, I think Microsoft could execute
either one reasonably well. What I think is critically important to understand
is that these strategies are completely incompatible with one another, and
there are tradeoffs between them. I wonder if Microsoft’s senior executives
understand that, or if they have actually drunk the Kool-Aid and think they can
simply muscle into mobile touch-based devices the same way they transitioned to
the mouse and desktop. In other words, would Microsoft accept being a top five
manufacturer of mobile computing devices? Or would they rather bet the company
trying to reclaim the glory years of the 1990s?
As a long-time Apple
user, I do enjoy the delicious irony that Microsoft management has appeared
increasingly trapped over the past few years by the very success of that silly
toy of a user interface.
Labels: apple, business, computers, strategy, technology