The Empire Reboots
October 9, 2014 7:13 AM   Subscribe

Can Satya Nadella Save Microsoft? (Longform) Great Vanity Fair article that spends a lot of time examining the Gates/Ballmer dynamic.
posted by Nevin (45 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
So far so good!
posted by blue_beetle at 7:28 AM on October 9, 2014

In the language of the Myers-Briggs personality test, designed to measure how people perceive the world and make decisions, they both strike others as NTs, meaning they are highly rational seekers of knowledge.

NNnnnnnnnope! Closed window.

More seriously, what is funny to me about these articles talking about Microsoft "missing" tech moments is that they are just that: moments where someone makes a lot of money. And then largely they pass and the money goes away and we move on. The companies that arrived on the scene at the exact moment for smartphones and tablets, for example, are having trouble squeezing money out of an increasingly tight, commodified market. Microsoft missed that money but it's not clear that they are now "forever behind", they can hop back on the train with some other thing. Stuff goes away and comes back. Everyone thought game consoles were on the decline and nope! they're back. A bad example because Sony is currently beating MS like a red headed stepchild there, but you get the idea. People are low on desktop PCs and desktop software but businesses still need them and frankly they are just really nice pieces of hardware these days, so I think they'll stick around.

I do think MS has a chance with some of the really interesting ultra-low-TDP chips that intel is putting out to sneak back into the portable computer/tablet/laptop market, but I don't think they'll manage it. Still, I see a window there.
posted by selfnoise at 7:32 AM on October 9, 2014 [5 favorites]

I just don't see the desktop/laptop platform being replaced by phones and tablets in the worplace. And with MS enjoying an 88 percent OS usage share on those platforms and a similar usage share of office applications, they hardly need "saving".
I think they're somewhat content to not be a major player in platforms mainly used to connect people to twitter and facebook.
posted by rocket88 at 7:50 AM on October 9, 2014 [4 favorites]

“The way I think about success is our relevance,” says Nadella.

um. this doesn't mean anything, right?
posted by murphy slaw at 7:52 AM on October 9, 2014 [10 favorites]

I just don't see the desktop/laptop platform being replaced by phones and tablets in the worplace. And with MS enjoying an 88 percent OS usage share on those platforms and a similar usage share of office applications, they hardly need "saving".

That would be fine if they were a business and not a stock. But the world today doesn't give a shit about a business. The business world demands an everclimbing stock and it is a CEOs job to do the pumping so investors can do the dumping.
posted by srboisvert at 8:12 AM on October 9, 2014 [2 favorites]

The big problem with Microsoft is that their really big success isn't replicable. They happened to be in the right place at the right time and rode the wave of one of the biggest technology changes in the last half-century to great profits. That's the basis for the whole goddamn company: they won the tech lottery.

The only areas where they've done especially well since then are where they've bought other companies, or hoovered up whole groups of people, and stamped a logo on it before their toxic internal culture could wreck the thing. E.g. the DEC VMS team that built the guts of Windows NT (i.e. the first non-shitty version of Windows), or Bungie and the entire HALO franchise, the first chapter of which was written for MacOS.

The only real advantage they seem to have vs. independent operations is that they allow you to do something at scale very quickly. At least in theory, a Microsoft-acquired company could instantly have access to a giant customer base that would take years to grow organically, and thus have a big first-mover advantage in a new market. But that's a really dangerous line to walk, because if you shove too much shitty new software or services down users throats via cross-selling, they're gonna get pissed off.

They're also very good at QA; despite all the internet snark and hate for Microsoft products, they are rarely buggy. Questionably designed, sure, but most of the time they work as designed. I've known people who have gone from startups to Microsoft and back again, and one of the common refrains you hear is that Microsoft is nice because you can write code and have reasonably-intelligent people test the living daylights out of it, without actually hiring a bunch of testers yourself, or hiring some outside contractor in India to do it, etc.

Anyway, I don't really envy Nadella. I think the heyday of Microsoft is behind it, at least of being able to dictate the direction of tech, and that's not ever going to come back. The best they can hope for long-term is probably to pull an IBM: concentrate on institutions and enterprise buyers, keep the value of the "Microsoft" imprimatur high ("nobody ever got fired for buying IBM Microsoft"), and get into consulting and services in a big way. There are lots of random consultancies making bank configuring MSSQL and other Microsoft products; Microsoft should sweep them aside and make a cozy niche for themselves to while away the decades.
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:13 AM on October 9, 2014 [7 favorites]

um. this doesn't mean anything, right?

It does, and the article says how - you won't be successful if you're not relevant, and try imagining how things would be if you weren't there. A world without Google would be very different: a world without Dell, say, would be much the same. The mobile world without Microsoft would be practically identical to how it is now - Microsoft has little relevant to what most people use their mpbiles for, at least that's in any way unique. Enterprise computing would be very different without Microsoft, in the same way that enterprise computing in the 1970s without IBM would have looked very different. When IBM lost its relevance, it lost its success.

(The best thought experiment here is imagining the world without Apple...)

I've been professionally involved, in one way or another, with Microsoft software since around 1985, and was a hobbyist nerd teen when 16-bit came along with MS-DOS (aka PC-DOS) riding shotgun. As the article says, the magic that then happened in Microsoft's favour is not something that can be done again. MS has huge inertia and if Nadella successfully carries some of that across the death of the relevance of the desktop OS - which will happen, even if the desktop form factor survives - then it will keep some of its revenue. But MS will never again be the sine-qua-non of every darn computing device you touch. And a good thing too. There were many years where MS just squatted on the industry and stopped things changing in any way that it didn't like.

Mainframe->mini->micro->cloud - you only get to win one. And because cloud has such lower barriers to changing the source of your basic compute functions, it may never be winnable in that way. Good. Monocultures are bad.
posted by Devonian at 8:16 AM on October 9, 2014 [15 favorites]

They're also very good at QA

This is something to watch in the near future. I don't know how widespread it is, but I know people in the Xbox team who have shared with me that they've eliminated most of their QA, and that it's happening on a larger scale in the company. I don't know exactly what they're doing to keep the quality up, if anything.

Yes, I was incredulous when told at first, and had to double-check to make sure I understood properly. As someone who's spent the last 10 years working in QA roles, I sure as hell don't trust devs to write quality into their code.
posted by evilangela at 8:52 AM on October 9, 2014 [4 favorites]

this doesn't mean anything, right?

Relevance: How many cool new applications are being written for Windows/Windows Phone/Xbox/Azure? How many licences for the new Office subscriptions are there? It's another, softer, word for market and mindshare.

Microsoft's model has been to make money providing enabling software and platforms for others to build on to sell to customers or to get a job done. Nadella started in Azure, one of the new MS platforms that's not a market leader.

Azure only makes money if it's relevant, if it's ubiquitous. Windows phone desperately needs relevance.
posted by bonehead at 9:04 AM on October 9, 2014 [2 favorites]

MS' QA has got a lot better - but this is a recent thing. About five years ago, I remember some security software had an upgrade where a major security flaw from a previous version that had been fixed, came back, which can only mean some serious cack-handed process bollockry in the build/test pipeline. In many ways, MS is producing far higher quality software now.

I'm quite a convert to devops in general, especially when it means you do spend the time on process and test engineering. Taking that seriously, and in particular understanding instrumentation and feedback, is a big set up that directly addresses the structural failings in old-style dev, and I think it's economically impossible now that it won't win. Which means mo' better software, and that gladdens my wizened old walnut of a heart.
posted by Devonian at 9:17 AM on October 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

That's the basis for the whole goddamn company: they won the tech lottery.

Do you mean MS-DOS? Windows? Office? XBOX?

I'm no fan of MSFT, but I think you're selling them very, very short. Yes, in the last decade or so they've become ossified, and are flirting with irrelevance. But they had a very long, very successful run. They didn't just get lucky.
posted by Frayed Knot at 9:20 AM on October 9, 2014 [5 favorites]

There are a couple of interesting currents flowing in IT now.

- Cloud services have not destroyed the private datacenter, and there seems to be a consensus that the high water mark has been reached. Even acknowledges 80% of IT applications will remain in-house, for a number of performance, reliability and political reasons.

- The smartphone app model cannot sustain a healthy developer ecosystem, especially on Android and WinPhone. Users are not only not ponying up for third party software, when they do, it's orders of magnitude less profit, nowhere near enough to sustain small and indie devs. The "long tail" is a myth - early adopters drive everything. So you have major players making mega-millions with a "home run" app, and people going broke, and not much room in the middle. In response, some developers are hiking prices significantly, others are hoping a shareware "try before you buy" model will entice users to pay (this will be embedded in Android L as "micro-apps"). Something will need to give, and soon, or the ecosystem will implode.

This is notable, as Microsoft is moving heaven and earth to pivot into a major role in cloud-hosted apps and smartphones - just in time for those markets to evaporate or transform into something new and unrecognizable. They're going to get burned, badly, and it will be their dev tools, server software and productivity applications that will let them ride it out... if they don't burn those bridges.
posted by Slap*Happy at 9:20 AM on October 9, 2014 [2 favorites]

Wow, that's really throwing the golden goose into the meat grinder, if they're getting rid of QA. The big advantage that Microsoft products have, at least at the level that I tend to see them — say, MSSQL vs. Oracle vs. DB2 — is that they are far, far better tested, across a broader range of possible configurations, and just appear to have more spit-n-polish and push less work onto the installer/configurer. (And they're cheaper, kinda, sometimes. But cost is less of a deciding factor IME than people tend to think. Spending other people's money is remarkably easy.)

When IBM lost its relevance, it lost its success.

Couple of issues there; first, IBM is pretty successful currently. If I had to put my 401k in either MSFT or IBM, right now, I'd probably pick IBM. They've already pulled a pretty good phoenix act and re-emerged as a fairly interesting hardware/software/research but mainly consulting company. As a business model it seems long-term sustainable at least as far as anyone's crystal ball can see today. Microsoft could do a lot worse than emulate.

And even if we're just talking about IBM historically, when they were really suffering and looking like they might get broken up, I'm not sure that the relevance / failure thing is causative in the way you're making it out to be. They became irrelevant (well, to mid-size business anyway) because their products were losing in those markets to other offerings (minis, then PCs). When you're the market leader, you are practically by definition relevant. So relevance and success are two sides of the same coin, or at best a sort of chicken-and-egg thing.

Dell is becoming less and less relevant at about the same pace that they're becoming less and less successful. There was a time when Dell was both very relevant and very successful; their purchasing and BTO strategies probably did more to drive down the cost of PCs* than anything since Compaq cloned the IBM PC, and the insane expansion of the PC market was largely due to those sort of cost decreases. You couldn't open a tech or biz rag without reading something about Dell for most of the late 90s. But now they're just one of a bunch of enterprise PC makers, operating on thin margins and beating each other up in a sort of zero-sum game.

* One of the things Dell did, that they are rarely credited for, was forcing the PC marketplace into selling volume on thin margins. In some parallel universe, the manufacturers might have been able to take a lot more of the cost-per-performance increases in the PC world as profit, rather than what actually happened, which was they went almost immediately to consumers. Dell forced the entire sector into a race-to-the-bottom that almost everyone else probably would have liked to avoid.
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:21 AM on October 9, 2014 [3 favorites]

"The way I think about success is our relevance,” says Nadella.

um. this doesn't mean anything, right?

You just have to translate. It means "The way I think about success is our doupleplusgoodness”.
posted by thelonius at 9:24 AM on October 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

Metafilter: serious cack-handed process bollockry
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 9:30 AM on October 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

Relevance is also why he bought Mojang. Minecraft isn't just a bestseller, it also drives, at a conservative count, the top quarter of viewed/moneymaking channels on Youtube and Twitch, for example.

Who do you think will be first in line to get preview access to the new Xbox/Windows games?
posted by bonehead at 9:31 AM on October 9, 2014

If you think Minecraft was bought to bolster (of all things) Xbox, I'm not sure you've been paying attention.
posted by 2bucksplus at 9:34 AM on October 9, 2014

"The way I think about success is our relevance,” says Nadella.

um. this doesn't mean anything, right?

Seriously his memo's are like he's playing buzzword bingo solitaire.'

See here

Some nonsensical highlights:

The day I took on my new role I said that our industry does not respect tradition – it only respects innovation. I also said that in order to accelerate our innovation, we must rediscover our soul – our unique core

Today I want to synthesize the strategic direction and massive opportunity I've been discussing for the past few months and the fundamental cultural changes required to deliver on it.

Our customers and society expect us to maximize the value of technology while also preserving the values that are timeless. We will create more natural human-computing interfaces that empower all individuals.
posted by bitdamaged at 9:45 AM on October 9, 2014 [4 favorites]

No, I think, in the short term, they were mostly buying access to do increased licensing. There's a licenced movie coming out soon and the tie-ins to that alone are going to make a good fraction of the purchase price. It's also no coincidence that the Lego deal was just announced either, IMO.

In the longer-term though, they're going to want to migrate the entire generation of Minecraft kids, a few tens of millions of customers, to new MS games and platforms. The youtubers are the tastemakers and point of access to that community. MS has been very careful to reassure them that they can continue to do what they do---they are a flock of golden geese, and a way to get the MC community viewers onto new games. It's all ready being done by other developers, Starbound and Terraria to name a couple. MS wants a piece of that marketing machine too.

All of that is "relevance".
posted by bonehead at 9:47 AM on October 9, 2014 [2 favorites]

The best they can hope for long-term is probably to pull an IBM: concentrate on institutions and enterprise buyers, keep the value of the "Microsoft" imprimatur high ("nobody ever got fired for buying IBM Microsoft"), and get into consulting and services in a big way.

Pulling the IBM gambit is really interesting to me: just how big is the enterprise market, and is there room for everyone to transition to it? HP and Blackberry are also two former fallen titans who are moving to enterprise. Seems like servicing big business is the retirement home for old tech companies. But doesn't that just saturate enterprise?
posted by Apocryphon at 10:07 AM on October 9, 2014

Kadin2048: "Dell is becoming less and less relevant at about the same pace that they're becoming less and less successful. There was a time when Dell was both very relevant and very successful"

Dude, you're getting a relevant computer.
posted by Chrysostom at 10:08 AM on October 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

If you think Minecraft was bought to bolster (of all things) Xbox, I'm not sure you've been paying attention.

It honestly was, though. If we take "Xbox" to mean MSFT's current and future console video gaming business, Minecraft is intended to be the gateway drug for Microsoft consoles for the next generation of gamers. A lot of people already play Minecraft on the console, and if Microsoft can capture the Mnecraft generation (and it's important to understand how much of a grip Minecraft has on the minds of kids - it's ridiculous), they'll be sitting pretty for a while longer.
posted by protocoach at 10:11 AM on October 9, 2014

I think it's pretty simple. The way Ballmer thought of success was the percent of tech industry profits that went to Microsoft. He was, and apparently still is, obsessed with that metric (come on, he still has the chart at hand):
Ballmer, as you might expect, has his own way of scoring his tenure, and it is not the Valley’s way. He was an applied-math-and-economics major at Harvard, and he likes to quantify things. In his new office he pulls out a chart that tracks the profits of the top 25 technology companies from 2008 through 2013. Back in 2008, Microsoft was the most profitable company, earning 15 percent of all the profits generated. In 2013 it was the second-most-profitable company (after Apple), earning 12 percent of all the profits generated. In technology “it’s easy to glorify the products produced and the reputations won, not the money made,” he says. Indeed, under Ballmer, Microsoft’s profits grew almost threefold, to $21.8 billion.
This is how Ballmer thinks about Microsoft's success: the money made, and specifically the percent of the pie that goes to Microsoft.

When Nadella says “The way I think about success is our relevance,” he is pretty clearly reacting directly to that idea. While Microsoft was squeezing record company profits from their core services they were losing relevance. And relevance is the thing that leads to new products, new customers and future profits.
posted by 2bucksplus at 10:11 AM on October 9, 2014 [3 favorites]

>That's the basis for the whole goddamn company: they won the tech lottery.
Do you mean MS-DOS? Windows? Office? XBOX?

MS-DOS was bought from an outside developer. Windows NT too, as mentioned above. Office and (original) Windows they can claim as self-originated, but XBox is weird because while it's popular, it's yet to be profitable to Microsoft.

Microsoft wouldn't be into any of this, however, if it weren't for their original business: selling versions of the BASIC programming language to computer hobbyists and manufacturers. That gave them the presence and capital to buy DOS from Seattle Computer Products.
posted by JHarris at 10:25 AM on October 9, 2014

Nigella Lawson is taking over as CEO of Microsoft? Good for her. I didn't think she'd come back after that cocaine thing.
posted by XMLicious at 10:29 AM on October 9, 2014

So you have major players making mega-millions with a "home run" app, and people going broke, and not much room in the middle.

That's just a description of everything, everywhere, these days. Oligarch economy.
posted by colie at 10:30 AM on October 9, 2014 [2 favorites]

It's as easy as ever to trot out the same old tech forum purity arguments about how if only Microsoft had succeeded in the right way and invented everything they sell from first principles or whatever, they'd be a True Tech Company worthy of their success. At the same time, as someone with no illusions who interacts with them on a near-daily basis, the depth and breadth of the changes which have taken place since the Ballmer transition was announced has been substantial. It's easy to be skeptical, not least because there are still bumbling decisions being made, but the general direction is promising and I could spend the next hour or so talking about good things that have transpired since which I don't think would've had a snowball's chance in hell under the prior regime.

The bottom line these days is that none of the tech giants are what our sci-fi addled minds would imagine they could be and consequently all of their software sucks. We'd be well served as a technology community to get beyond the tribalism. Go team Goopplesoft! Beat State!
posted by feloniousmonk at 11:02 AM on October 9, 2014

Agreed, but let's also agree that stack ranking was the worst.
posted by Apocryphon at 11:05 AM on October 9, 2014 [3 favorites]

I've been actively trying to limit my interaction with MS products for the last 15 years but I have to say that they have made some great products of late. My wife's laptop runs Windows 7 and we've had no complaints about the OS. The laptop's dying now (a hinge is acting up), and looking at the options we decided to get a Surface Pro instead of a Macbook. Using it is kind of like being in the future - it's roughly the same size as an iPad but it's a computer with a full-size USB 3.0 port (the holder for the pen is a letdown however). I can see Moore's law alone letting the form-factor shrink down to phablet size in the near future, making their plan for one OS on all devices seem pretty reasonable. At present MS may only have 20% of all internet accessing devices, but I could easily see Android and Chrome OS disappear in favour of a free Windows once the hardware got to that level.

Also, their cloud storage pricing is insanely low (a $100 annual Office365 subscription gives you 5 accounts with 1TB of storage). I don't know how much influence Nadella had on any of this but right now MS seems pretty solid to me as an end-user.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 11:43 AM on October 9, 2014 [2 favorites]

[Windows NT] bought from an outside developer.

This is not remotely true. Microsoft hired Dave Cutler's entire team from DEC in order to write NT, but it was written from scratch. (Otherwise, they'd have been stealing DEC's property.)
posted by Slothrup at 12:25 PM on October 9, 2014 [2 favorites]

selfnoise: "Microsoft missed that money but it's not clear that they are now "forever behind""

Point that I took was that missing the boat on mobile broke the "everyone develops for Windows so Microsoft can afford to ignore the competition" circle. MS Office on the iPad? If Microsoft had been in on the move-to-mobile windfall, this would have been unthinkable. They would have been hammering hard on how Surface ran Office, so buy a Surface and skip the competition. I mean, just compare MS Office on Windows vs. on a Mac - it wasn't until the most recent Mac Office that non-Windows users even got a full version of Outlook, let alone the other add-ins. Aside from the big 3 (Word, PowerPoint, Excel), most of the other parts of the Office suite (Access, Sharepoint, Lync, InfoPath, OneNote, etc.) were (or remain) Windows exclusives, with very little support on any other platform. Even the parts that do make it to Mac are behind and less well-rounded, compared to the Windows counterpart. (Can you imagine if Adobe tried to sell Mac users a version that had at best 70-85% of the functionality as the Windows copy, at the same price point? Because that's what Microsoft has done with Office for a long, long time.) If they had desktop-level dominance in mobile this would have been true for Windows Phone as well. They would never make ANY apps for iOS or Android, but given that Windows Mobile is pretty much a non-factor in terms of market share, iOS and Android are where the profits are, so Microsoft has realized they are going to have to do suck it up and develop for other platforms.
posted by caution live frogs at 1:19 PM on October 9, 2014

I agree, but I think it's hard to imagine Microsoft or any company just being eternally dominant in every sector. Regardless of their mobile missteps, which were comically legion, it's probably a better attitude for any company to assume that their exceptional positioning will slide down towards the mean over time, and try to create a strategy that is flexible and assumes that they will ultimately have to be reactive to the marketplace.

I think you can sort of see that in the history of the Xbox. Microsoft clearly took the "we are going to spend to be the leader then dictate terms, because that's what we do" strategy. And they did really well! But it wasn't sustainable and cost a LOT of money, so now they have:

-A product that is reasonably healthy but not a money maker and not market dominant.
-Lots of console developers angry about their tactics (particularly indies).
-Lots of PC developers and PC gamers angry about their neglect of that platform.
-Lots of investors annoyed by this lead weight of a division.

Not that the product is pointless, but I can imagine a Microsoft that had avoided the early blunders of the One and bolstered the PC with better cross-platform support if they had approached the products with the attitude of "hey, we aren't a special company after all, let's just make the best products".
posted by selfnoise at 1:33 PM on October 9, 2014

Oh, now he goes and tells women in tech “It’s not really about asking for a raise, but knowing and having faith that the system will give you the right raise.” Sure, that'll help how Microsoft is viewed.
posted by evilangela at 2:00 PM on October 9, 2014 [4 favorites]

I guess Karma works both ways, Mr Nadella.
posted by JoeZydeco at 2:46 PM on October 9, 2014

Apart from IBM, we don't really have a model for what happens to old, mature technology companies. Perhaps its silly to expect them to dominate forever, as Google is hoping to do. Microsoft are still a big player though, and I'd argue that they are the most diversified of the current Google/Apple/Facebook/Amazon cohort.
posted by memebake at 3:04 PM on October 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

Monocultures are bad.

Certainly, the 'Wintel' (Windows/Intel) monoculture of the early 1990s was exasperating for lots of people.

Looking back though, I wonder if it was a necessary stage that the industry had to go through. Before the Wintel monopoly you had everyone and their dog creating new OSs and architectures willy nilly with every product launch. This led to a lot of crap and a lot of fragmentation. A lot of wasted effort re-inventing the lower layers of the hardware and software stack instead of improving the higher layers.

You could argue that the standardisation that Windows bought facilitated an IT explosion among businesses that then filtered down into the home. At the same time the standardisation of the Intel/PC architecture made the hardware cheaper. Fixing the lower layers for a while allowed us to see the potential of the higher layers.

I wonder whether Linux would have been able to exist without the PC monoculture within which it could incubate and spread.
posted by memebake at 3:12 PM on October 9, 2014 [6 favorites]

Also: Microsoft are famed for their slavish devotion to backwards compatibility, often at the expense of other desirable features.

Perhaps this is the key thing that allowed iterative progress to be made in hardware and software (successive Intel processors, successive versions of Windows) without fragmenting markets too much. So you had a huge monopoly that also allowed for fairly rapid and regular iterative progress. Perhaps that was important for getting us where we are today with tech.

Jus sayin
posted by memebake at 3:17 PM on October 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

The world would be a far more interesting and productive place if the US antitrust settlement had broken MS into Operating Systems Inc and Applications Inc. Imagine Office and Visual Studio for Linux and VMS… Imagine a Linux distro with halfway decent fit and finish…
posted by monotreme at 3:40 PM on October 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

If MS are going to remain relevant they are going to have to do it while having a hell of a hard time attracting women to come work there. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella: women should trust that 'the system will give you the right raises'.
posted by Space Coyote at 4:04 PM on October 9, 2014

any portmanteu in a storm: I can see Moore's law alone letting the form-factor shrink down to phablet size in the near future, making their plan for one OS on all devices seem pretty reasonable. At present MS may only have 20% of all internet accessing devices, but I could easily see Android and Chrome OS disappear in favour of a free Windows once the hardware got to that level.

So here's my problem with this. I've thought about this a lot, and i've used the small win8(not rt, full windows) tablets like the dell venue quite a bit.

Windows phone is pretty. It's well made, and there's some interesting/cool UI stuff going on there. The actual physical phones they make essentially first party through nokia are beautiful, unique, and high quality as well. Ditto for the surface tablets.

Now here's where it shits up. Why should it be the same windows? Yea, it's cool to be able to use any old windows app going back to like 1995 whenever you want on a pocket(ish) sized machine, but the reality is that most of the stuff you'd want to run probably works like shit on a touch screen and looks like crap to the point of being almost unusable on a small display. Even on an 8 inch screen a lot of stuff was borderline impossible to use unless it was a "metro"(or i mean "windows 8 ui" or whatever dumb name they came up with) app designed for touch screens.

Which gets in to another huge problem i have with the "one OS for all!" thing. Even some apps that have a metro interface and are in theory definitely touch-ready just... don't work right.

All of microsofts 1st party apps work great, but they don't actually extend anything system wide. The mechanism for copying and pasting text via taps and long presses is not part of the OS, it's just part of IE. This is completely stupid. Two different apps, side by side on the start menu/main screen of the touch interface will have totally different UI interactions. As far as i can tell, it's for example impossible to copy/paste text in chrome without a mouse and keyboard.(or if it is, it's totally obtuse and not the standard way it works in all the MS apps).

With the apps that are just for windows phone this stuff at least gets thought of, and there's some modicum of consistently system wide. On a full-windows small tablet though, a lot of the apps put in the ms app store are just a total hodgepodge. And a lot of this is microsoft's fault, not the developers. Why isn't any of the touchscreen UI stuff system wide?

They really should have made something like .net for touch apps, and forced everyone to use it(ala apple with xcode and their APIs) if they wanted to make an app that wasn't for the classic desktop. Want to make a touch app at all? Ok! now you have to include support for all these basic system services so there's some kind of goddamn consistency. They seem to have kind of done that with windows phone, and then wimped out with windows 8.

And this is why i have absolutely no reason to want the device you describe. I wanted it so bad for years. I dreamed about stuff like the HTC shift, and loved little pocket windows computers like the sony UX and the OQO(both of which i owned, both of which were stupid and overpriced... ugh). When windows 8 was announced as a crossover OS i was excited for something like what you described... but the reality of it is actually pretty crappy, and it's mostly their fault.

MS seems to have a huge problem with whole-hog committing to something. Everything that comes out the end of the pipe, with a few exceptions, feels like it was touched by the cancerous tentacle of design by committee compromise. And they can't shove that genie back in the bottle now. If windows 10 launched with "ok, if you want to use metro on a touch screen device you have to follow these rules or fuck you" everyone would just laugh them off the stage. They sort of had a chance to stick that one in there at first, but they can't unfuck the chicken now.
posted by emptythought at 4:46 PM on October 9, 2014 [3 favorites]

another point i missed is that the shift you're thinking of isn't going to happen. android owns the low to middle end of the market, and apple owns the high end. this is going to be true for a really long time. both companies have set themselves up for a fucking dynasty here like microsoft enjoyed. i would bet someone a horribly ridiculous amount that if we hopped in a delorean right now and went to 2024 people would still be buying android z and ios X8(or whatever, you get my gist) phones. They might roll up, or fold from being small phones to tablets, or whatever loony toons tech comes along to change the physical form factor. But they have blown their fucking chance on this one.

windows phone is like the freaking linux of OSes right now. It's perpetually the year of it's explosive growth and it's just not going to happen. Microsoft had to pay vine to make an app, and getting instagram was also a huge hassle. Lots of apps are even blocking their APIs from people making third party knockoffs for the OS. There will never be say, snapchat, or whatever the next big genital-and-breast-sender app is for windows phone. And there's absolutely no drive or motivation for anyone to even release it on there.

Microsoft is in a way, way shittier position right now than apple was in say, 1994. There is no core userbase of people who want it for (a) specific app(s) or anything. Their best selling phone by some massive order of magnitude was the lumia 520, which sold like crazy because it was as cheap as $30 on sale, and smacked the crap out of any other phone pretty much under $100. And then it became "the phone people buy because they don't know the moto 5 is $60-80".

It sold because it was the cheapest smartphone and the bang/buck was high, not because people wanted windows phone. It was the store brand cola of phones. And there's no future in that, the margins are goddamn pennies at that point. Safeway can get away with selling super cheap cola because they make money off of you from everything else. Microsofts problem is that it isn't clear where they extract the money from you. The xbox is a giveaway boondoggle, the phone is too. Windows? Everyone i know under 30 either has a mac or just keeps humping along the same machine they've had since the windows 7 days, with few exceptions. Back before smartphones and tablets, and even a few years in to that, it was normal to get a computer every other year. Now no one does that. And, now that people use smartphones for everything and more than they use tablets, which they use more than they use actual computers... where does microsoft fit in when no one wants their phones or tablets?

The idea of them becoming an IBM-like consulting firm that really only works with businesses is a decent one. I think their days as a consumer-facing company are pretty much done though. Just like IBM fucked off on the thinkpads/centres/servers(mostly), i think microsoft needs to fuck off on phones, tablets, and game systems.

In 10 years i'll be shocked if they make anything but a workstation OS, office, and server stuff. They have a deep, deep foothold in business though that they have to actively try and fuck up to lose. Neither apple or google really does shit in that area, and all of googles attempts at it(ie docs) are fairly limp-dicked compared to what microsoft already has there.

They really need to stop trying to foist the whole thing on everyone as an ecosystem and experience though. They lost their chance to do that. Everyone would still use office, but it has to be cheap and available on the google play store and app store. tying stuff in as "look at the cool things you get to do if you also have our phone/tablet in addition to a desktop with windows!" isn't going to fly. Apple gets to do this because they're the monolith, and google gets it from a different but also valid angle because they're like "who cares what you use to access our services, you're still using them". Microsoft is trying to halfassedly sort of do both. And while that's classic microsoft, they really just need to whole-ass something closer to the google approach.

They have a solid brand name for certain things. Office is essentially the photoshop of well, writing shit and making spreadsheets and presentations. Powerpoint, as a synonym for a presentation, has basically the penetration of "googling" for searching. And it isn't even some thing people begrudgingly use like quark was or something, it's generally pretty solid stuff.

I realize this sounds a bit like that "nintendo should just give in and make mobile apps" argument, but really, microsoft has much more of a future in services+applications+consulting than they do trying to battle two godzillas head on. They're basically coming in from the position apple would be if they had only started making computers with mice and a GUI in 1994, and had just kept on with the apple II until then.

it also makes me sad when i think about how fucking cool it would have been if microsoft never bought nokia, and they had instead starting making android phones after the N9. imagine a lumia 1020 that didn't run windows phone...
posted by emptythought at 8:29 PM on October 9, 2014 [4 favorites]

You make a lot of sense but given the unpredictable nature of the market maybe Notch will suddenly turn his abandoned alternate history assembly language space race game into the new hotness (exclusively available on the Windows Phone Store and Xbox Games Store) and Microsoft will be saved for all time.
posted by Apocryphon at 11:52 PM on October 9, 2014

Do you mean MS-DOS? Windows? Office? XBOX?

MS-DOS was purchased and resold. Originally it was called "86-DOS" and sold by Seattle Computer Products; Microsoft bought it and then turned around and licensed it to IBM in what's probably the most famous bit of either underhanded dealing or basic sharp practice in the tech world, and the rest is history.

The original versions of Windows were terrible, and Microsoft did a very poor job maintaining it. They almost blew the huge first-mover advantage they had because of poor quality (and because IBM overcharged for OS/2); the way they fixed the problems and produced a usable, modern operating system was by hiring the entire DEC VMS team and letting them basically reimplement VMS's internals with a new filesystem (NTFS) and the Win32 API tacked on. There used to be a not-really-a-joke that if you wanted to understand the WinNT internals, the best documentation you could buy was a VMS book (though they did have the foresight to change some of the terminology). A lot of the VMS team's work persists to this day, at least structurally.

Microsoft Word you can kinda give them credit for, although it has a NT/VMS-ish history as well; the guy who wrote the first version (which was actually for Xenix) came from Xerox and had worked on Bravo there. He was presumably hired specifically to write a word processor modeled on it. (Bravo was pretty slick.) So I think much of the credit should lie there, alongside the desktop metaphor, Ethernet, mouse-driven GUI, and everything else Xerox managed to invent and squander.

Office as a suite of applications is a triumph of cross-selling, which Microsoft is good at. If each app were sold individually, we'd probably still be using Lotus 1-2-3 as the standard spreadsheet of the business world. There were a lot of accusations that floated around in the 90s about the Office team getting the inside track from the Windows teams to allow them to beat 3rd party developers like Lotus; hard to say now (given Lotus' incompetence) how much merit there is to that, but it does seem consistent with Microsoft's idea of fair dealing at the time. Quite a few Office components came from outside Microsoft as well; PowerPoint was originally from ForeThought, and was created for the Mac as a tool to print overhead-projector transparencies. Visio came from ShapeWare, later Visio Corp, and had an established userbase pre-acquisition. Access is the counterexample that proves the rule: it was an internal product, which probably explains why it was terrible for so long. But one thing Microsoft does do is iterate long and hard on its products, and gradually improve them. Like the kid in the back of the class who knows they're not really very good at the subject but doesn't want to fail, they do well sometimes by being unafraid to grind away at the problem.

As for non-PC products... the original xBox hardware wasn't good at all. First, it was basically a computer in a box, not really any great leap of engineering, they sold it at or near a loss, and they had a spectacular failure rate. For someone without the deep pockets of Microsoft, it probably would have meant bankruptcy. People tolerated it though because it was a box you purchased to play Halo on, and Halo, of course, was Bungie's. Whether enough of Bungie remains inside Microsoft to produce anything aside from Halo-franchise updates is sort of an open question that will be resolved shortly; Microsoft as a company seems aware of the brain-drain that happens to companies they acquire, and have been trying to do better.

Anyway, they're an interesting company, but IMO the sort of great-man preening over Gates/Ballmer that you see in the business press is really unwarranted. There's a lot more to be learned by studying the companies they acquired, and in some cases the companies Microsoft beat in the market, than Microsoft itself; they've been a snowball rolling down a hill for a long time.
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:18 AM on October 10, 2014

You make a lot of sense but given the unpredictable nature of the market maybe Notch will suddenly turn his abandoned alternate history assembly language space race game into the new hotness (exclusively available on the Windows Phone Store and Xbox Games Store) and Microsoft will be saved for all time.

Notch didn't come along with the Mojang acquisition.
posted by murphy slaw at 8:27 AM on October 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

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