Mini-Microsoft doesn't get all the coverage or linkage it did when it first showed up. The Mini-Microsoft blog, which is quite apparently written by a fairly high-level Microsoft employee, is shouting for heads to roll. Fair enough -- anyone who's read the blog more than a few times could have seen that coming.
The real tale being told This latest news is writing on the wall. -- the look into the abyss -- is in the long comments thread that follows the post. It paints a picture of a culture that is buckling under its own weight -- one where accountability has been replaced by showmanship and an almost feudal atmosphere of dark shadows, whispered secrets, mistrust of other "nobles" and a rising storm of protest from the vassals and peasants.
I can't say with any certainty if this atmosphere extends throughout the company. The Microsoft employees I have come to know, who occupy a variety of positions at different levels within the company, do not display the unhappiness and frustration I'm reading in these comments -- at least not publicly. Having had the experience of working at a very large company (although nowhere near as big as Microsoft), I'm familiar with many of the symptoms being displayed in this evolving litany of ills. The organizational problems being discussed are not, in and of themselves, unique to Microsoft.
What makes the situation notable is the visibility of the company and the length of time it has taken for this product to ship. I've been in the software business, in one capacity or another, for a long time and I can tell you with certainty that, positive spin and fact aside, this is decidedly not a good thing. When more than 60 comments on a blog post run in as overwhelmingly negative a vein as the ones that follow today's post do, there's more than smoke. There's something burning.
Granted, all of the comments are anonymous. There's no way to know who is saying what. But from an organizational perspective, the overall picture being painted is hardly one of an organization headed in the right direction and that is a truly scary thing to see. Vista, whenever it arrives, will be the foundation for the next few years of Microsoft's success or failure to maintain its position as the standard bearer in the PC world.
Nothing will change overnight as a result of this announcement. The stock price will certainly dip. There will be much hand-wringing, prognostication, and portents of doom in the next few days. The new reality will settle in as it has before. But there's an undercurrent being expressed -- one that feels like the end of an age. The Microsoft "empire" seems to be heading into period of great turbulence.
I believe this because the rest of the industry is so decidedly different. Web 2.0, or whatever you want to call it, is changing the expectations of the market. Ship light, ship fast, improve incrementally, and remain agile are the real buzzwords in the business today. As has been pointed out any number of times in the comment thread I'm discussing here, and generally noted with increasing regularity elsewhere, Apple and the Linux communities are not standing still. They continue to innovate, evolve, and ship.
It's feeling rather prophetic that a recent campaign promoting the soon-to-be-replaced Office 2003 featured dinosaurs. Because the big companies are looking more and more like big lumbering creatures being threatened by new, emerging species that are increasingly numerous and much more adaptable to a changing environment. The giants still rule but their future doesn't feel quite so pre-ordained as it once did.
I think Bill Gates gets it -- I think he's been warning his company in a very public way about this for a long time. His two books, neither of which would ever be mistaken for great literature, predict exactly the kind of sea change we're experiencing today. But Microsoft is simply too big to be steered by a single personality. Gates can no longer exert the kind of influence over his company's destiny that other charismatic, iconic leaders can.
Steve Jobs, for example, has been successful at maintaining Apple's vibrancy and relevancy because the company has remained small and focused (relatively speaking). The number of SKUs Apple is shipping today hasn't changed dramatically. There are still two versions of OS X - a client and a server. There are still three lines of hardware products - consumer, professional, and entertainment. If you want a home pC, you get an iMac or iBook. If you want professional tools, and can pay the premium, you get a PowerMac G5 or MacBook Pro. If you want to be entertained, you buy an iPod or Mac Mini.
Every one of these products (with the exception of the iBook which is overdue for a refresh) has shown a steady evolution. For better or worse, the Apple product you buy today will be rendered obsolete when the next MacWorld rolls around. You've been able to set your clock against this predictable schedule for years.
It appears that Microsoft, if it was ever able to maintain that kind of velocity, has lost it through sheer scale. Owning 90+ percent of the market is a tough place to be and it only gets harder when you continue to miss shipping dates.
I believe there are good things being done in Redmond. Office 2007 is an exciting product that demonstrates the kind of fresh thinking many have claimed Microsoft is no longer capable of. The new UI, like it or not, pushes the usability envelope in a new direction after decades of the File, Edit menu paradigm. The Live initiatives, while a mixed bag, promise new kinds of value, flexibility, and affordability for smaller businesses and consumers.
The Tablet PC and the recently announced Ultra-Mobile PCs are examples where Microsoft has successfully developed and delivered a reference standard for the hardware partners to build against. It's a model they should follow in everything they do - JMHO.
This latest news is writing on the wall. I can't say with any degree of certainty exactly what's been written yet. I'd like to believe that the dates announced for end-of-year enterprise delivery and January mass market delivery will be met. I hope the extra time delivers the results promised - a more stable Vista release that will get every market segment more excited and eager to move into the new Windows world. I hope that Office 2007 ships later this year as promised -- that will restore some confidence. I hope that the first-generation UMPCs prove to be a hit.
I hope all of these things because Microsoft is, like it or not, a massive and essential piece of the technology ecosystem. And while change is inevitable, there's good change and bad change.
UPDATE: Mary Jo Foley at Microsoft Watch says this delay is a marketing decision. Maybe. On paper it sounds reasonable. But I think a comment to her article is illustrative of the problems this is creating after five years of waiting for a new Windows OS and the mounting anticipation this year with the release of new dual core processors and increasing availability of 64-bit units. One of her readers concludes:
"I'm building a new computer later this year. If I have to go through the expense of buying XP Pro at that point, then I will probably wait a few years before going to Vista. I'm not going to be double OS taxed because of a business marketing scheme."