What Microsoft does well

What Microsoft does well

Summary: I asked the question yesterday: what does Microsoft do well? The question is predicated on the assumption that every company with a reasonable degree of success has something it does that is unique, and that was instrumental in its success.


I asked the question yesterday: what does Microsoft do well? The question is predicated on the assumption that every company with a reasonable degree of success has something it does that is unique, and that was instrumental in its success. In Apple's case, it is their design skills in both hardware and user interfaces. Good design would rightly be considered part of Apple's core identity. A utilitarian gray plastic device with all the aesthetics of a screwdriver is as likely in the Apple line-up as a lawnmower section at a BMW dealership. The core identity, in other words, helps to stamp out deviation from what is, essentially, a very good aspect of Apple products.

Core identities, when properly understood and allowed to permeate a corporate culture, act like a constitution. Constitutions tend to lay the broad outlines of what is considered proper within the legal and political realm. It serves as a strong curb on those who wish to deviate from base principles, and more specifically, trims what people with an interest in power are able to do in pursuit of their interests.

Questions of identity are particularly relevant to Microsoft at this juncture. Microsoft is contemplating a merger with a company that has 12,000 employees, not to mention a Unix development culture that is, for obvious reasons, quite different from that which exists at Microsoft. Microsoft is also of a size that it is harder to discern a unifying theme across its product lines. Microsoft makes operating systems, set-top boxes, databases, Customer Relationship Management (CRM) software, music players, game consoles, and interactive touch-sensitive tables, to name just a few from a list of products that would simply be too long to mention all at once in a blog post.

It is also a company with famous levels of intra-company politics. Microsoft isn't unique in that. Big companies with lots of money are attractive to people with a skill for and interest in power. No company in the software industry, however, is as rich and powerful as Microsoft.

In most IT organizations, code is power. That was the case at a bank I briefly worked at prior to Microsoft. Some team created a convoluted time entry system that they managed, through political connections, to mandate that everyone use throughout the company. It was so complicated that it required a three day training course (a boon to the team of dedicated trainers it required) so that people could understand how to do basic things with the product. Even then, I couldn't make heads or tails of the damn thing. The people who owned the product, however, had been promoted to high positions within the company.

When you have as many people working on as many projects as you do at Microsoft, its critical that you don't have them all reinventing wheels in order to create codebases that they own. That's hard enough when you have a bunch of contrarian developers who are convinced that they would do it better if given half a chance ("Not Invented Here" syndrome is a common disease in the computer industry). It's all but impossible when power and politics get added to the mix.

That's why companies need a core identity. And in my opinion, Microsoft's identity is its traditional ability to turn every product, however inconsequential, into reusable and customizable widgets that can serve as foundation for additional software development.

That goes beyond .NET 3.0 - 3.5, which I think in a few years is going to put real pressure on competing platforms that don't have such a strong API. When I first started working in Internet development back in 1996, I wouldn't give Internet Explorer (then at version 1) the time of day, because Netscape was a more programmable and reusable platform. Within a very short timespan, that all changed, as Microsoft rapidly redefined the browser as a set of components that could be customized and reused apart from the web browser "frame" that constrained the pre-Mozilla Netscape browser. The slam-dunk was when Microsoft managed to put more HTML development features into IE than Netscape (IE 4.0, at the time, was a leader in standards compliance).

The same applies to Office. Traditionally, office automation products were monolithic creatures designed solely for human / user interaction. Microsoft Office wasn't designed that way. Using the same COM API used to offer reusable functionality throughout Windows and across Microsoft product categories, they created a set of automation interfaces that made Office products reusable in ways no one else had bothered to do (at least, not on as large a scale as Microsoft).

Microsoft's past success, in my opinion, is based entirely on its ability to give third parties the tools to create more advanced applications by treating every product as another tool in the development toolbox. This means that more minds than the ones who occupy the halls of Microsoft are working to figure out ways to make Windows a more interesting platform.

Some might argue that consumers have changed. Usability is all that matters today, and the the days of the "killer application" are gone (I'm thinking of you, Harry Bardal).

I don't deny the importance of usability in a software market that has taken a decidedly consumer-oriented turn. Microsoft needs to master the art of good design, particularly in software user interfaces, but also in hardware, if nothing else than as a guide for the wider hardware market that bases itself on Microsoft software.

Even so, I think "killer application" raises the bar too high. Small feature improvements made easier through a robust and improving development platform and tool set are more the norm. "Killer apps" are like meteor strikes, and from a software standpoint, are less common than incremental improvements. Incremental improvements are that much easier when you arm developers with the best tools to make those improvements.

Enterprises could be expected to favor good software APIs, as they build more custom software. That doesn't explain why consumers, however, favored Windows disproportionally at home. It wasn't Apple that put a computer in every home...it was Microsoft. That speaks to the strength of Microsoft's core identity, even if it is not something about which consumers are directly aware.

So, Microsoft's core identity is as maker of platforms, a fact which applies to its traditional operating systems as much as to the applications it creates. What ramifications does that have for Microsoft? I'll discuss that later this week.

Topics: CXO, Microsoft, Software, IT Employment

John Carroll

About John Carroll

John Carroll has delivered his opinion on ZDNet since the last millennium. Since May 2008, he is no longer a Microsoft employee. He is currently working at a unified messaging-related startup.

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  • Mice, fast food, and jet engines

    So how does a Microsoft keyboard fit into your theory?

    Or, looking at it from a company twice Microsoft's size (at least financially): what is the "core identity" of General Electric?
    Yagotta B. Kidding
    • Huh?

    • GE is not a software company

      ...and just as there is more incentive to create dominance in software (due to the need for standards) than in light bulbs, there is a difference in the nature of software companies.

      Oracle has its database (database enabling everything is their orientation). Apple has its approach to design. Microsoft should put a stake in the ground as a maker of platforms and software infrastructures, and allow that to inspire everything they do.
      John Carroll
  • I just bought the...

    Microsoft Ergo 4000 Keyboard. Awesome keyboard. Something it definitely does well.
    • I agree -

      I have one at home - work - and for my kids and they all love it. Great keyboard. And I'm a touch typist.
    • Microsoft hardware

      ...is an interesting and fast growing division within Microsoft. At first glance, one might ask: how does hardware fit into Microsoft's core identity?

      Well, Apple TV is a bit of a shift, too...though I think it is important for Apple to make a good UI and a pleasing set-top box (reflective of its own orientation). In the same light, where possible, Microsoft should make its tools seamlessly interoperate with other Microsoft software products, the Live initiative, etc. View hardware as the physical extension of a platform orientation.

      To a certain extent, Microsoft does that. THey create new features in their hardware that they use within Microsoft products.
      John Carroll
    • Agreed

      I have used Microsoft mice and keyboards for a very long time. They're comfortable to use, respond well, and appear to be absolutely bomb proof. Don't forget the Sidewinder range of gaming peripherals either, I have a joystick from the mid 90s that still works a treat.

      It makes me wonder why they went so wrong with X360 and their LiveCams? (Well, maybe not so wrong in the case of the latter but they are definitely inferior to the equivalent Logitech products)
    • Microsoft Ergo 4000 Keyboard

      I agree also. This keyboard is the best on the market.

    Windows is garbage
    .NET is garbage
    Silverlight is a nonstarter
    Xbox finally made mooney and is getting killed by Wii
    STB/IPTV is garbage.

    Short, they do nothing well, but try to do everything
    • When do you think they'll file for bankruptcy?

      You have to admit their most recent financial statements show they're doing something right.
      • Worth less today

        Their stock is worth less today than it was eight years ago. And if they buy Yahoo, their stock will take another hit. Few products are making money at Microsoft because they have to compete with their own (previous) versions of products, which are on the whole, pretty good.
        • Actually a lot of "old" tech stocks are...

          so your statement shows you really don't understand the tech market.
        • Don't forget

          that eight years ago Google was barely a blip on Microsofts radar and Apple was comparatively dead from a consumer point of view (pre-iPod).
    • Be specific...

      The term garbage is highly subjective a one person opinion; a childish term actually.
      As it may help others be specific with your answer. Provide us with a quality answer
      backed by facts, and examples of your actual experience. Provide solutions with your
      statement as what other areas we should look into. Otherwise you come across quite
      immature not worth paying attention to.

      My question is, "What makes .NET garbage, STB/IPTV garbage?". Now help everyone.
      • I'll play...

        In case you hadn't noticed, .net from the get go has Hemorrhaged versions, leaving trails of "fun" behind. And as far as the tv stuff is concerned, unless I heard wrong, Comcast dropped Microsoft's stuff in Washington. I guess that means it was a raging success, being dropped in its home state.
        • Haven't heard that about Comcast...

        • zkiwi, Thanks...

          My comment was neither about playing, challenging, nor that the OP is incorrect.
          My question was about using "garbage" it didn't explain anything; one person
          garbage is another persons treasure.

          Your comment gave some insite to Comcast .NET issues, I wasn't aware of. Perhaps
          they dropped it in the East coast as well, haven't read about it happening here.
          Hemorrhaged versions could apply to other products as well. Or could other
          corporations not be having .NET issues; I don't know that's why I posted my

          Again thanks for your reply. I'll do more research into .NET issues good and bad.
        • Hemmoraged versions?

          Are you saying that .NET has gone through too many versions too quickly? I first started using .NET 1.0 in 2002. It is now at 3.5 (2008). Why is that too fast?
          John Carroll
      • Well put and very accurate -

        probably a Linux or Mac religious nut.
      • Comes from experience

        You have to try different products from different vendors to be qualified to judge them. If you have never used anything but Microsoft products then you probably would know no better.--Does that help answer your silly question?