Microsoft’s last bid for tech dominance

Yesterday, Microsoft unveiled a major reorganisation designed to allow it to compete in every sector of the tech market with a unified Windows experience. Can this possibly word?

10 years ago, Microsoft’s position in the tech world seemed unassailable. Apple’s latest innovation – the iPod – had to come to Windows to stand any chance in the marketplace. Our internet experience was mediated through Windows and – for most – Internet Explorer.

Funny how things change, isn’t it?

People talk about the four horsemen of technology these days being GAFA – Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon. Microsoft doesn’t even feature, despite its once dominant position. Scary times.

When rumours started spreading about a major Microsoft reorganisation last week, who could fail to pay heed. Was the slumbering behemoth about to make itself relevant again? Yesterday, Kara Swisher had the full memo for us – and it’s huge. Just shy of 6,000 words, in fact.

And quite early on, it gives us a very familiar statement:

when we set out to put a PC on every desk and in every home

That was the old Microsoft mission statement – one it was brutally effective at achieving. That was what to led to that dominance a decade back. But the world has moved on from PCs. Do they have something as clear to define the next 20 years of the company?

Scanning through all those words looking for something as pithy, as direct as the old mission statement is quite some work – but this is the best I could find:

We will strive for a single experience for everything in a person’s life that matters. One experience, one company, one set of learnings, one set of apps, and one personal library of entertainment, photos and information everywhere. One store for everything.

This says two things to me:

  1. Microsoft wants to dominate. The word “one” keeps repeating in there. This isn’t about partnerships – this is about the company itself defining people’s computing experience.
  2. This is almost the reverse of a strategy. There are no decisions being made here to target particular markets, or parts of the industry. Microsoft wants Windows to be everywhere, and be the centre of everyone’s digital existence. This is a structure for a full-scale assault on everyone, not a targeted attack on high-value segments of the market.

This looks a lot like the last throw of the dice for the old, dominant Microsoft. Ballmer is trying to put the company back on the path to complete dominance of the computing ecosystem, the way it had in desktop and laptop computing, before the rise of the mobile platforms. It’s a huge, bet the company gamble. If it fails – if people choose a multi-ecosystem life, or chose a single vendor, be it Apple or Google, and reject Microsoft’s offerings, then whomever leads Microsoft into a more partnered age and existence is unlikely to be Ballmer.

It would be unwise to count the company out. It has always been a ruthlessly effective competitor, able to enter markets and gain traction quickly, despite being a late entrant. It worked in everything from graphical user interfaces to gaming consoles. But Microsoft’s ability to be a fast follower is not what it was. Windows Phone is a lovely operating system, but is getting little traction in the market. When Apple up-ended the mobile market with the iPhone, it was Google and Android that swiftly locked down the fast follower spot. Even worse, the Surface hasn’t seriously impacted the tablet market – something that must really gall a company that spent years promoting the tablet concept before Apple swept in and claimed it for itself.

The Surface was built on the very philosophy that underlies this change – one Windows experience everywhere. Many people have suggested that its failure in the marketplace (so far) is down to that philosophy not working out yet. The same could be said of Windows 8. Now, with this reorganisation, Ballmer has put in place a structure that should support this goal better.

Will it work? I doubt many people would bet on it. But Microsoft has surprised us before. Let’s see if it can do it again.