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Is Microsoft Dying?

Quite a few years back now, in a Mac Support Group meeting, I presented a theory that Microsoft had peaked and that they would begin a slow but inexorable decline into obscurity. It’s probable that at the time I was commenting more from a position of hope rather than perspicacity but it is beginning to look like I was right.

Microsoft have declined according to almost any indicator you want to use: their PC OS share is still very high but declining, they have lost their preeminent position in the web browser market, Office is still strong but being challenged by alternatives, they have no worthwhile place at all in the smart phone and tablet markets, and their share of web services is declining.

In reality their only big win has been with the Xbox 360 console which seems to have a significantly greater following than the Sony PS3. But Sony are probably an even better example of a once-great company which has declined into mediocrity. What went wrong there?

Anyone who follows this blog will know that I am no great fan of Microsoft. I do have some of their products installed on my Mac, but that’s just to support my clients (the university I work for has licensing so superficially Office costs “nothing”). Some of my work’s central services are based on Microsoft technology (their horrible Exchange server for example) and I am forced to use those, but overall I avoid all things Microsoft.

So my opinion is a bit biased I guess. I would like to say that I dislike Microsoft because their products are terrible, not that I think their products are terrible because I dislike Microsoft, but I guess it works in both directions to a certain extent.

The decline of the company seemed to coincide with the departure of Bill Gates and the rise of Steve Ballmer but that might be partly a coincidence more than a cause. Ballmer is a gross incompetent though, according to everything I’ve heard. I’ve criticised Gates in the past too, but there is no doubt he is intelligent and thoughtful and his philanthropic work impresses me. I wonder what he thinks about Microsoft’s situation since he left!

Ballmer seems to have pushed a lot of silly modern management nonsense such as “stack ranking” on to the engineers at Microsoft and this has ensured that lack of innovation and mediocrity has resulted – a seemingly inevitable consequence of modern management techniques.

Now Microsoft seem to be going the same way that Apple did when Steve Jobs left in the 90s. Apple’s failure at that time was more spectacular than Microsoft’s is now but the parallels are still obvious. Maybe Gates has to take charge again to return his company to prominence like Jobs did for Apple.

I’m not saying Gates hasn’t made mistakes though. In the 90s he scrapped an effort to make an e-book reader because the user interface wasn’t enough like Windows! You can make a case for presenting a consistent interface across multiple devices (even if it is a truly terrible one like Windows) but Apple have clearly shown that each device has to have an interface suited to its function. Microsoft really doesn’t understand that even now.

A former manager said this about Microsoft: “They used to point their finger at IBM and laugh. Now they’ve become the thing they despised.” And that is the big danger of every successful company. I just hope it doesn’t spread to Apple as well!

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