Microsoft and the Orson Welles syndrome

Summary: Throwing money at people, making them comfortable before they have performed for you, doesn't really work for anyone.

One of the recurring themes with our friend David Berlind is how Microsoft is taking over.

Here's an example from last week, the subtext being the "Microsoft Media Juggernaut." Here's another, about IM, and still another, about its XML patents.

I mean no disrespect nor criticism here. Berlind has a healthy skepticism about Microsoft's claims. But it did leave me thinking.

Microsoft is very, very big. Microsoft has been very, very big for a long time, and Microsoft puts billions-and-billions of dollars into R&D every year. Microsoft always gets the best-and-brightest into Redmond. Its campus may be the greatest Software University in the world.

So why don't they own more of the world? Why do they struggle to compete in areas like mobile telephony, in online media, in broadband, in embedded systems, and Internet servers?

There are many theories. It's a bigger world than it was in IBM's day. The open source business model is powerful. There are those nasty anti-trust suits, both public and private. Not to mention the popular bias that sees Microsoft as the Big Bad Wolf.

Somehow this doesn't entirely explain it for me.

Orson Welles in 1937
My theory comes down to one word, hunger. Hungry people, and hungry companies, grow fast and innovate faster. Throwing money at people, making them comfortable before they have performed for you, doesn't really work for anyone.

I call this the Orson Welles syndrome, after the late, great director (left) who grew to enormous proportions, then died at age 70. His best work was done when he had that lean and hungry look. (This picture, from Wikipedia, was taken in 1937.)  As he prospered, so his art diminished.

The folks at Microsoft aren't fat. But they are comfortable. I'm not suggesting the hair shirt for anyone. I am suggesting that, when they find talented people, it might be best to stay in the background and leave them alone, to let them keep ample equity in their own efforts, rather than signing them to Redmond's "standard rich and famous contract," as Welles himself called it in The Muppet Movie.

Maybe open source wins because the people behind it stay hungry.

Topics: Microsoft

About

Dana Blankenhorn has been a business journalist since 1978, and has covered technology since 1982. He launched the Interactive Age Daily, the first daily coverage of the Internet to launch with a magazine, in September 1994.

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