June 2011

Volume 26 Number 06

Don't Get Me Started - Will Microsoft Learn DEC’s Lesson?

By David Platt | June 2011

David PlattLast month, I told you how DEC, once the world’s second-largest computer company, spiraled down into death by not recognizing the market changes happening around it. That same, self-inflicted death spiral could happen to Microsoft if it doesn’t start recognizing current market trends better than it has.

An old proverb, allegedly Russian, says, “When all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.” To DEC, everything looked like a VAX. To Microsoft, everything looks like a PC.

When Microsoft first entered the palmtop market a decade ago, what did it call its product? Yep, a Pocket PC. Its proudest features were Pocket Word and Pocket Excel. I still have one that I use as a paperweight. My cat Simba sometimes knocks it off my desktop just for fun.

Why do customers buy palmtop devices? Instant access—it’s in your pocket when you need it. In return, you sacrifice display size and ease of input. A user won’t limp along doing spreadsheets on her palmtop device for very long, because it’s much harder there than on her PC. She’ll use the palmtop for purposes that require instant access, like getting directions when her husband is lost and won’t admit it. It’s an entirely different beast, not a smaller PC.

PCMicrosoft took a decade to realize how palmtop devices differ from PCs and produce a decent one, the Windows Phone 7. Its voice integration with Bing is superb—just say what you’re looking for (“Cape Ann Veterinary”), and it not only finds and displays the site, but also offers to call the business or navigate you to it. Now thatmakes life easier—not tapping in Excel spreadsheet entries with a stylus, one painful character at a time.

But even today, what comes on every Windows Phone 7 device? Office Mobile, with Word, Excel and PowerPoint. Just in case Notepad isn’t enough for my grocery list. I’d rather use the space for more music or games or higher-res pictures, but I can’t remove Office—Microsoft glued it in place. We’re Microsoft, we’re a PC company, Thou shalt carry Office.

Microsoft is now falling farther behind in the tablet market. It brought out its first tablet PC about a decade ago—an overpriced, underpowered PC with touchscreen support so you could use your finger instead of a mouse. The silence was deafening. Dell offers only two models of Windows tablets today, both notebook PCs with touchscreens slapped on. The HP Slate is also a full Windows 7 PC, minus a keyboard. They’re a tiny niche market at best.

Apple sold 15 million iPads in the first nine months, while the Microsoft tablet has flailed around for a decade. Why? Because Apple realizes what Microsoft does not: the true laptop form factor is an entirely different device, not a smaller PC. It requires a completely different design approach, much closer to a phone than to a PC. I’m watching my 8-year-old daughter play with my father’s iPad as I write these words. She loves it, far more than her PC at home. I wouldn’t write a novel on one, but my daughter prefers it for kaleidoscope art and pony races. “Toys,” sneered one current Microsoft employee. That’s exactly what Ken Olsen used to say about PCs.

Like French generals building the Maginot line after WWI, Microsoft keeps fighting the last war over again. And like the French, the company will get slaughtered if it doesn’t break its self-reinforcing positive feedback loop and start realizing how the world has changed. Parts of Windows Phone 7 show the brilliance to which Microsoft developers can rise when their managers point them at the correct problems. If Microsoft doesn’t open its eyes, Apple and Google will do to Microsoft what Microsoft and others did to DEC. If I’m still around to write Bill Gates’ obituary, I wonder how much of it I’ll be able to do by cutting and pasting from Ken Olsen’s.                        

David S. Platt teaches Programming .NET at Harvard University Extension School and at companies all over the world. He’s the author of 11 programming books, including “Why Software Sucks” (Addison-Wesley Professional, 2006) and “Introducing Microsoft .NET” (Microsoft Press, 2002). Microsoft named him a Software Legend in 2002. He wonders whether he should tape down two of his daughter’s fingers so she learns how to count in octal. You can contact him at rollthunder.com.