Monday, August 2, 2010

Microsoft can still be competitive - if they want to

Microsoft is the company everybody loves to hate. With a near monopoly on home and business computer operating systems, MS has been the bully in the computer marketplace for a long time. Not many people feel sorry for MS when it stumbles or otherwise runs into difficulty.

I worked for a division of MS for a while. It was a great work environment, and the group of people I worked with were talented, were motivated, and enjoyed some degree of autonomy. They had a solid product line and, as far as I can tell, it sold well. (Do you have an MS optical mouse on your desk?) I would have loved to become a permanent MS employee.

I understand that not all divisions of MS are as fun to work in as that division was. That's the nature of a megacorporation like MS. I can live with that.

Recently, MS has made some major missteps in the mobile computing arena, leaving MS with single-digit market share in mobile phones, tablet devices, and mobile phone and table operating systems. To quote from TechRepublic's Jason Hiner:

So Microsoft has talked about five different mobile platforms in 2010: Windows Mobile 6.5, Windows Embedded Compact 7, Windows Phone 7, Kin, and Windows 7, with very little explanation about how these platforms relate to each other and which ones Microsoft wants to use in which settings. Is it any surprise then that Microsoft is flailing so badly in the mobile space and has no coherent tablet strategy?

And I think it’s fair to say that Microsoft’s tablet troubles are indicative of the larger problems that are haunting today’s Microsoft — similar teams competing for resources, minimal collaboration between similar projects, and not enough vision from the top to get everyone pushing in the same direction.

Charter wars like this are not uncommon in large corporations. Back in the day, Hewlett Packard had at least three different dialects of the BASIC programming languages, and at least four different small computer/workstation architectures. Now, as Hiner points out, MS has five different mobile "platforms."

Charter wars, if managed properly, can be a healthy thing for a large corporation. Small businesses can't afford charter wars, but big ones can. Charter wars give competing ideas the chance to duke it out in the lab, and again in the marketplace, and a skillful management team can use the charter wars to weed out the weakest ideas — just like those reality TV shows — and find the best idea for the company to pursue.

One of the challenges for upper management is knowing how long to let the charter war run. That takes a deft hand.

Charter wars are by their nature messy, acrimonious and bloody. It's unnecessary, but unavoidable. Some of the losers will go to work for the winning team. Some will quit out of frustration or hurt feelings. Some will simply move on to something else inside the company, and talk for years about how their vastly superior project got unfairly shafted. Eh. Welcome to the corporate world.

Microsoft can afford the "similar teams competing for resources" and the "minimal collaboration between similar projects." That's the essence of a good charter war. What MS needs, though, in order to get through the charter war and come out with a real competitive product, is "vision from the top to [manage the charter war properly and eventually] get everyone pushing in the same direction." That's what they're lacking.

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