The Trouble With Microsoft: An Insider’s Perspective

By  |  Thursday, February 4, 2010 at 3:14 pm

Former Microsoft VP Dick Brass has an interesting piece in the New York Times on the software giant’s woes. He says that opportunities to be innovative often fizzle because of internecine warfare in Redmond, giving two projects he was responsible for (ClearType and the Tablet PC) as examples. He also says that the company has lousy timing–Web TV was too much too soon, and the Zune was too little too late. And he says that Microsoft’s emphasis on building software for other companies’ devices–once a huge strength–has turned into a weakness in the era of the iPh0ne and the Kindle.

Microsoft took the blunt criticism from a former Microsoftie seriously enough that PR head Frank Shaw responded on the Official Microsoft Blog. If nothing else, Shaw’s post is graceful and good humored, and it makes at least one reasonable point: Brass’s dismissal of Xbox (“at best an equal contender”)¬†seems unfair. If every new Microsoft enterprise were as slick, innovative, and successful as the Xbox 360 platform, you’d tend to Brass’s charges as those of a disgruntled ex-employee. But they’re not, and you can’t.

 
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  1. Steven Fisher Says:

    Technologically, the Xbox is certainly at or below both of the other consoles.

    Look at the PS3, then at the Xbox 360’s DVD drive. Immediate also-ran status on the high-definition front.

    What about Wii? Well, sure, the Xbox can push pixels faster. But who cares? The Wii is a lot more fun for most, and certainly beat the crap out of the Xbox in terms of cool tech. For gaming, they offer a comparison to a non-shipping project.

    You can’t call the Xbox a failure, but “at best an equal contender in the game console business” is fair enough. Because the best way to look at it is an equal, and a more likely way to look at it is a high-def gaming console that isn’t really high-def, or a gaming console that isn’t creative at all.

  2. william Says:

    The article points out that Microsoft is having trouble coming out with successful products and that politics gets played at large companies. Very informative indeed!

  3. Harry McCracken Says:

    I’m not a maniacal Xbox booster–the console I own and like is a Wii–but I think Microsoft has done a good job of making it a platform for entertainment of multiple sorts, not just games, and of lining up formidable titles.

    –Harry

  4. tom b Says:

    I thought the article was well written. It must be really frustrating to be one of the smart ones in Redmond, particularly now, when the guy in Bill Gate’s seat is so deficient in any positive qualities.

    I think the author makes a good point when he says you have to get ALL the departments working together. This may be one reason Apple succeeds– Jobs’ style is said to be quite dictatorial. And Apple struggled during those days in the mid nineties when their was not clear voice at the top.

    I would call the XBox “me too” rather than innovative– and a DISASTER from a business POV. It cannibalizes PC games–once a Windows area of strength– and the unit is still billions in the red, though they’ve eked out some profitable quarters post Sony’s dismal mishandling of the PS3 release.

    MSFT biggest problem, though, was not really addressed directly– they are entirely reactive– ALWAYS trying to play catch up; NEVER in the lead. Look where that leaves them now: Vista was an awful release. Win 7 was a bug fix for Vista. Here we are, a decade into the 21st century– MSFT’s competitors are ALL on UNIX– and MSFT is still diddling around with creaky, old spaghetti-ware that will NEVER get much better than it is now.

  5. Dave Barnes Says:

    The X-box is #3 in unit sales in a 3-horse race.
    See http://vgchartz.com/hwcomps.php

  6. william Says:

    Of course Microsoft is reactive. They have no vision. The lack of vision and leadership contributes to the internal politics running wild. Although there is always politics at large companies, a strong vision and sense of purpose helps keep it in check.

  7. gizunk Says:

    I’m not sure I dare post a comment here having read the criticism above, I think Microsoft has had both success and failure recently. For instance Vista was an absolute shocker but look how well they’ve responded with 7. I think most people would have a hard time saying that was awful.

    With respect to the 360 they’ve actually shown a bit of initiative there. XboxLive has been a huge success, the way its been integrated with the system is what I believe has got them through the rrod disaster. In terms of sales figures in my opinion its the attachment rate of peripherals and games which matters most, the profit’s never made on the console. Also I believe the Wii should be in a category of its own, it isn’t a games console, its a new breed of device. I bet you don’t find many gamers which only own the Wii, if on its own its normally for young children or a party device. Still I think Nintendo have done fantastic to get into these new markets.

    Finally the Zune, yeah its reactive and has possibly been released into a diminishing market but the product itself is very good. Especially with the release of the HD it gradually getting a larger foothold in the market, something I feel it deserves.

    Apologies for sounding like such a fanboy, I just felt like the were getting an unfair rap. Normally I’d talk more about the negatives as well but I’ve been beaten to it by other commenter’s.

  8. Dude Says:

    Microsoft has not been innovative since the creation of DOS. All of its other products since then have been reactions to other company’s successes.

    Office was created to battle the innovative WordPerfect and Lotus applications.

    Windows was created to battle the innovative Apple Macintosh.

    IE was created to battle with Netscape.

    All you have to do is look at the 1.0 version of these Microsoft “innovations” and compare them to their competition of the time. Microsoft never innovates. Microsoft copies, refines, retries, and markets. The success of Microsoft is entirely due to the success of the inexpensive IBM compatible computer – an inexpensive, random assembly of hardware.

    Today, however, Microsoft’s competition has learned to build products which are closer in price and far superior in quality by integrating hardware, software, service, the retail experience, and even media into a single-company, locked partnership.

    It is not Microsoft that is failing. It is the IBM compatible PC that is failing. Apple laptops are better than offerings from Dell and HP. They have better fit and finish, and the operating system is smoother, simpler, and tightly integrated with the hardware.

    Gaming platforms are the same. Games written for specific platforms work better than games played on inexpensive PC’s. Expensive gaming PC’s price themselves out of any competitive hopes. The platforms are replacing the IBM compatible as a game machine.

    Within a decade, the idea of having a huge box under your desk that you power up slowly and watch “boot up” will be ancient history. Microsoft must either start producing competitive hardware with their software, or they will no longer have a platform to dominate.

  9. Cynic Says:

    OK, but to cut MSFT some slack (can’t believe I said that), they’re a huge company that has product lines that cut across the IT landscape. Part of the code problem inherent in Windows was the decision to string along backwards compatibility into current releases. The implementation may not have been ideal, but if you consider the amount of hardware, software and user permutations the OS has to deal with, it’s probably a miracle that any version of Windows works as well as they do. It would have been much easier — and just as unpopular, if not more — to just sunset OS’es, hardware, and drivers more aggressively than they do.

    I think the point of the article was to serve as a warning, not a bodyblock to MSFT. Sure, he’s settling some scores, but he’s also describing something that happens in every large organization, public and private, when it reaches a certain size or age, and its arteries start to harden.