Redmond Diary

By Andrew J. Brust

Blog archive

Microsoft and True Grit

Last week, i.e. in a single week, Microsoft was on real tear: the company announced a release date for Windows 7, disclosed details of Zune HD and Zune's integration into Xbox Live, discussed Project Natal and other coming improvements to Xbox, and launched its Bing "decision" engine.

And all this week, at a special software design review (SDR) event, Microsoft is introducing major new business intelligence features coming in SQL Server 2008 R2, including its project Gemini product that helps rogue "spreadmart" projects graduate into managed end-user BI projects that can be moved to the server, and which IT can support and monitor. (more on Gemini when the NDA embargo is lifted.)

I'm attending that SDR myself this week. And I'm wondering: is Microsoft gaining traction, in a way it hasn't recently? And if it is, will it keep its eye on the ball and keep climbing the trajectory toward success?

Microsoft sure is the underdog. Its flagship operating system, music player and search engine have all been bona fide laughing stocks in their respective spaces. Is a comeback possible? Even if Windows 7 is stable, relatively pleasurable to use and modern, can it erase the black marks left by Vista? Can it disarm the humor in Apple's television advertisements and somehow thwart that company's famed Halo Effect?

Even if Bing provides better relevancy and some innovative ways to organize and cross-reference related searches, will that really tempt people to stop using Google? And if they do, will it be for more than a novelty trial period?

Despite Zune's relative elegance and proverbially strong version 3 software, will people, in any significant numbers, give up their iPods and iPhones, especially when Zune offers no converged mobile phone device (and when Windows Mobile is not exactly a good omen in that department)?

And as marvelously successful as the Xbox franchise has been, will Project Natal technology really work reliably outside a demo scenario? What if even one in every 300 gestures is missed by the cameras? Imagine losing a game because controller-less play caused your maneuver to be missed. What if people take a test drive with Natal and then just go back to using their controllers? What if the tweets and blog posts and comments turn into a flame war death match against Microsoft?

Let's be honest. These battles are all still enormously uphill, and common wisdom says the answer to many, if not all, of the above questions is a big, fat "no."

Windows 7 will probably suffer from at least some guilt-by-association with Vista, and netbooks pose a huge danger to its license revenue story anyway. Bing will likely gain only some share in the search market and even if Redmond does consummate a deal with Yahoo, Google will still be king. The iPod's not going to lose its franchise overnight; not even close. The Xbox is cool, no doubt, but it's a long shot for the game console to turn what was science fiction into marketable reality.

So what can Microsoft do?

Microsoft should do what it has always done to win its competitive battles. Work diligently, stay focused and gradually improve products in the stack, despite what the critics stay (even if the critics are kind). Microsoft needs to take the long view, and avoid trying to score some sudden, dramatic comeback on these fronts.

More consistency and tenacity; less hubris. Acknowledgement of the competitive threat, rather than dismissal of it. Smart people leading teams and less talented people not rising to leadership positions out of mere seniority. That's what Microsoft needs, and I'd argue that's the playbook the Windows 7 team, the Bing team, and the Zune team have been playing from.

I just hope they keep that book open and near them at all times. Grit, not heroics, constitutes the winning formula.

Posted on 06/08/2009

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