Over at his personal site, Frederic Lardinois of ReadWriteWeb is comparinf the world’s biggest software company to a massive tanker that’s turned and is moving full steam ahead. He points to Windows 7, Windows Phone 7, Internet Explorer, Bing, the Office Web Apps, and Windows Live Essentials as evidence that Microsoft has its act together. Not surprisingly, his post is attracting lots of comments–the majority from folks who think he’s wrong, wrong, wrong.
You can argue with Lardinois’s take on any specific product he mentions (or, if you choose, all of them). I’m largely impressed with Windows 7 and Internet Explorer 9, find the Office Web Apps disappointing, and think it’s too early to render a verdict on the intriguing Windows Phone 7. Overall, I think that Microsoft is doing a decent job of making good products that address its customers biggest needs. Certainly more so than it was doing a few years ago, when too many years of monopolistic market share in too many categories had left it lethargic and out of touch. (Monopolies have a way of doing that.)
As long as we’re comparing Microsoft to a giant boat, one of the things that remains unclear is whether it’s going to barrel ahead rapidly enough to keep up with newer, smaller, more agile watercraft. It took the company eight years to come up with a respectable sequel to Windows XP. Internet Explorer 9 is nifty, but it won’t be finalized until more than six years after Firefox made IE look like an antique and two years after Google announced Chrome. And even if Windows Phone 7 lives up to its promise, the iPhone has a three-and-a-half-year lead and Android has a two-year one. Tons of money and resources have bought Microsoft many things, but not speed.
It’s easy to visualize a scenario in which the company does well in part by making useful products in 2011, 2012, and 2013. Looking further into the distance is tougher, though. What happens if PC operating systems and upgrades thereof don’t matter as much? What if tablets start to replace laptops in the way that laptops have replaced a large chunk of the world’s desktops? What if dirt-cheap Web-based office suites get so good that there’s no obvious reason to pay hundreds of dollars for a traditional suite? (It’s the billions Microsoft makes from operating systems and suites that are paying for its investments in its future–so far, Bing is costing money, not making any.)
Microsoft may have strategies in place to deal with all these what-ifs, but it hasn’t articulated all of them, and it’s not clear that it has a firm grasp on where technology will take us over the next decade or two. When I talk to folks from the company, they still spend a fair amount of time defending desktop software, praising the PC, and otherwise arguing in favor of something that isn’t radically different from the status quo–which is fine, unless consumers and businesspeople have other plans. (I’ll bet that if you spoke with people from DEC, Data General, and Prime in 1985, you got an earful about the ongoing relevance of minicomputers.)
So what’s your take on Microsoft in 2010–and where do you think it’ll be in, say, 2015?