Thinking more about Microsoft

I keep thinking about that poor Microsoft MBA dude whose job it is to get people to “unlock value” by using all the features of Microsoft programs. It seems to me this really strikes an important point about Microsoft. For years people have been begging Microsoft for leaner, simpler products with fewer features. Not just befuddled and baffled consumers but CIOs at big companies, guys who manage tens of thousands of PCs, who are considered “thought leaders,” and who definitely have Microsoft’s attention. They’ve been screaming this from the rooftops: Fewer features, greater ease of use, greater reliability. They’ve done everything but put up billboards on the roads around Redmond saying, “Small. Fast. Cheap. Easy.” They don’t want slightly fewer features. They want a lot fewer. Like 90% fewer. So what does Microsoft do? It rolls out a huge new OS and a new version of Office with a 10x gain in features. Then it hires an army of MBAs to go “unlock value” and get customers to use all those features that they’ve already told Microsoft they don’t want.

Implicit in Microsoft’s approach is the belief that customers are simply too stupid to know what they want and that it is Microsoft’s job to teach them why and how they should use Microsoft’s overly complex and therefore unreliable programs.

This is no joke. It’s a serious problem and not easily fixed. It begins right at the top of the company, with Ballmer himself. I hate to play armchair analyst but Ballmer’s roots — a Detroit kid growing up with a dad who was a Ford manager — are too significant to ignore. Remember Detroit in the 1970s, when customers started saying they wanted smaller, cheaper, leaner, simpler cars? Toyota and Honda listened, while the Big Three kept cranking out monstrously huge cars and then putting all sorts of effort (advertising, discounts on the lot, dealer incentives, blackballing dealers who tried to open Toyota or Honda stores, spouting empty patriotic rhetoric about buying American, blah blah) thinking that by doing this they could get customers to buy the cars that they’d already told Detroit they didn’t want. This — not Harvard, not Stanford — was where Ballmer’s worldview was formed. There at Detroit Country Day School with the other kids whose dads ran the Big Three in the last days of Detroit’s golden era. Now at Microsoft we’re seeing a repeat of this phenomenon.

Microsoft seems to have lost sight of the fact that its rise to power came as a result of Bill Gates positioning Windows as smaller, cheaper, easier and faster than OS/2 Presentation Manager. Windows 3.0 was lean and mean and, relatively speaking, open. OS/2 with PM was big, bloated, expensive, and all about locking you in to IBM. IBM was the big monolith trying to protect its market share and suck everything into its maw. Microsoft was the disrupter, using a little toy weapon to attack a fortress.

Ploo sa change, as they say in Russian.