This is my open letter to Redmond, my Jerry Maguire, if you will. I’ve been a huge Microsoft fan and advocate for the past 15 years, and I’ve seen their product line evolve from the early days of DOS, through various incarnations of Windows and Office, and now onward to software+services. I’ve taught people to use countless Microsoft products, and I continue to use Microsoft products and services on a daily basis. I’m not a hardcore programmer, but I can find my way around Visual Studio well enough to do some casual coding (is there such a thing?) once in a while. If you’ve read my Windows Live Spaces blog lately (you’re probably there now), you know that I’ve also adopted Windows Live in a big way as my social networking platform of choice. I run multiple Windows Media Centers in my home, and I carry a Smartphone powered by Windows Mobile. Unless Bill Gates, Ray Ozzie, and Steve Ballmer need a fourth for a round of golf sometime, I’m not sure how I can be much more saturated in Microsoft than I am at present.
Along the way, I’ve endured the Microsoft Home series of early 90’s software titles (including Cinemania and even the much-maligned Bob), the early days of MSN, played a few of the better Microsoft Games (the Midtown/Motocross Madness and Age of Empires series still rank among the best, period), and managed to acclimate to the “fluent” interface of Office 2007. I was the first kid on my block to sport a Microsoft Natural ergonomic keyboard and mouse, and I’m not ashamed to say that I bought a Sidewinder joystick. Hell, I even thought the Gates/Seinfeld ads were cute.
It may be bordering on pathological, but the fact is if there’s a Microsoft tool for the job, then I’m automatically inclined to give it a try, even if it’s not quite the best-of-breed. You might say I’ve been programmed (pathetic pun intended, sadly).
That said, my eyes are wide open to the competition out there. Time and again, Microsoft’s reputation has come under assault by the barbarians at the gate. Apple continues to chip away at their dominance of the desktop OS market. Firefox is the cool browser that all of the hip kids use these days. Google and Yahoo! kill them in the search arena. Facebook has it all over them in the social networking milieu. And while a Windows Mobile phone used to be the epitome of mobile geekdom, today it frankly pales in comparison to Blackberry, iPhone (which I’ve taken to calling the “Jesus phone”), or even most standard-issue media phones. It’s getting tough to be a die-hard Microsoft evangelist when the masses already have way cooler shit than you do.
What’s the issue? It could be that Microsoft’s scope has grown too much, and the organization has become spread too thinly. You’ve heard the expression, “Jack of all trades, master of none.” I saw it happen when I worked with Gateway; when they started dabbling with home electronics, Internet services, and accessories, instead of just focusing on selling great computers, it all went to crap.
Maybe Microsoft just has a reputation problem. If the “Mojave Experiment” ads showed us anything, it’s that lots of people are sheep who just follow the herd because it’s cool to hate Vista, and by proxy, Microsoft (or maybe it’s the other way ‘round). There’s also the perception that only complete newbies, old folks, and Europeans would actually use something as clunky as MSN/Windows Live to drive their online experience. I’m not sure exactly why that’s supposed to be insulting, but it probably is nonetheless.
Perhaps their products just aren’t what they used to be, but it’s more likely they’ve just become top-heavy beasts that are loaded with way too many extraneous features that average people don’t know about or care about. The bottom line is that while Microsoft Office programs can do a lot of different things, the tasks that should be simple and straightforward just aren’t. People care less about having a monolithic program that does it all; they’d rather use several tools, provided that those tools are simple and consistent.
Regardless, Microsoft finds themselves in the same old quagmire again and again. If they tinker with the established standard too much, then it’s a fail. If the next version doesn’t do everything that the previous version did and then some, then it’s a fail. If they add too much bloat, then it’s a fail. If they don’t build customization and user choice into absolutely every aspect of the product, then it’s a fail (and a possible target for legal action, as in Opera’s current case regarding Internet Explorer). If it’s not as sleek and sexy as a Mac and simultaneously as light as Twitter, then it’s a fail. How is any company supposed to measure success against such extreme demands? Put simply, start over. Press CTRL + ALT + DEL and reboot.
A reset would allow Microsoft 2.0 to emerge as a leaner, meaner organization with “startup” mentality. They could build smaller-scope products that function the way the yearning masses actually want. Cut the clutter and confusion about multiple platforms. Move everything to the cloud, including the OS, and damn the consequences. Weave social networking and collaboration into the foundation of every application. Build simpler, lightweight applications that each do one simple and distinct task, but do it so well that each becomes the de facto standard for newbies and power users alike. Finally create that all-in-one device that one-ups the iPhone. Build a search engine that turns Google into yesterday’s news. Do it for cheap, maybe even free (for consumers at least, they can continue to fleece businesses all they want). In short, make Microsoft cool again, and call it Microsoft “One.” One platform, one service, one Microsoft for us all.