November 2013

Volume 28 Number 11

Don't Get Me Started - Advice to the New CEO

By David Platt | November 2013

David PlattIn August, Steve Ballmer announced his impending retirement as CEO of Microsoft. He promises to choose a successor within a year.

I suspect it won’t be me. I told Microsoft, as I told Harvard during its recent presidential search, I’d only take the job if the company gave me a completely free hand. (Neither institution asked me; I’m just saying.)

Nevertheless, you can depend on me to continue as the diligent court jester, speaking truth to power for as long as they’ll listen or at least not try to shut me up. I call ’em as I see ’em. And I have some advice for that brave soul who takes the reins at Microsoft, whoever it turns out to be.

  1. First and foremost, understand that tablets and phones are not PCs. My Surface keeps calling itself a PC. It isn’t—I don’t want it to be and neither did all the customers you hoped would buy one but didn’t. PCs have keyboards and precise pointing devices. They devote equal resources to producing and consuming content. Tablets and phones lack these input devices and therefore are optimized for consuming content. As I wrote in my May and June 2011 columns, DEC died because it couldn’t stop thinking of itself as a minicomputer company. Microsoft has to stop thinking of itself as a PC company. Ballmer said, “We’re now the devices and services company.” That didn’t ring true coming from the ultimate PC warhorse. It’s your job now to make it so.
  2. With your current share of the smartphone (3 percent) and tablet (4.5 percent) markets, you have a horrendous chicken-and-egg problem. Who’s going to buy your hardware until it has good apps, and who’s going to write apps until there’s a hardware base?
    The only way anyone has ever solved a chicken-and-egg problem like that is by giving away one-half to sell the other, classically giving away razors to sell blades. Spend less on advertising and more on making good devices cheap. Subsidize them if necessary. Microsoft charges $930 today for a Surface Pro with a keyboard. For that price, you could buy a 17-inch Dell laptop, a full-size iPad (with Retina Display!) and a case of decent beer. You won’t solve your chicken-and-egg problem that way. Discontinued HP TouchPads flew off the shelf at $99, even with no apps and no future. Buy yourself some market share quickly to start the virtuous cycle.
  3. Your biggest asset is your army of developers. This is an army of which your humble correspondent has created a tiny part, and helped shape a larger one. They would love to use their current skills to develop apps for this brave new device-and-tablet world. They have trouble seeing the return on investment at your current market share. But you can solve that. The worst problem any developer has in the device space is covering the multiplicity of OSes and platforms. Developers want to support iOS and Android. They’d support Windows 8, too, if it didn’t take so much extra effort. Microsoft should develop a toolkit that covers all three from the same codebase.
    Wasn’t that the original intent of the Microsoft .NET Framework, anyway, when the world was new and I still had hair? Developers, even non-Microsoft ones, would flock to you. It’ll get you more client apps for Windows platforms, and also guide more devs toward using your cloud platform as the back end of whatever client apps they write. Either do it yourself, or buy Xamarin as a jump-start. Do it quickly, though, before the army gets hungry and switches sides. 
  4. Finally, listen to outsiders. It’s an ongoing problem for the person atop any large organization. People beneath you only tell you what you want to hear. Everyone at Microsoft says to each other, “Sure, PCs are great, I use PCs every day. Yep, the Windows Phone OS is cool and so is the Surface.” You get locked into this self-reinforcing positive feedback cycle where no one dares tell you that you forgot your pants today.
    Develop your own channels of independent information. Start by reading my column every month. If you really want the lowdown, I’ll privately send you the early drafts before the editors sanitize it.

So, my incoming friend, I’ve mapped out your global strategy. All you have to do is execute. Good luck from your faithful court jester. You’ll certainly need it.

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