Foley on Microsoft

Why Microsoft Shouldn't Try to Be Apple

According to long-time Microsoft watcher Mary-Jo Foley, now is the time for Microsoft executives to come to grips with the fact that Redmond is not Apple -- and that's OK.

This summer's decision by Apple CEO Steve Jobs to step down has spawned a new rash of Apple versus Microsoft comparisons.

The majority go something like this: Apple is more nimble, more innovative, more responsive to customers, more in sync with trends, and just more of everything that is good and admirable and right. And Microsoft is nothing but an Apple wannabe.

I have numerous quibbles with the first statement but few with the second. Many divisions at Microsoft have, indeed, become Apple wannabes. In its marketing and sales campaigns, Microsoft pooh-poohs Apple. But in Redmond, Apple is feared and loved in equal parts.

Look at the willingness of the Windows team to sacrifice clarity around its development strategy for secrecy in an effort to orchestrate an Apple-like "big reveal" like the one that took place at the recent BUILD conference. Or consider Microsoft's move to make Nokia its preferred phone partner -- a buyout in everything but name and price tag -- which has led to two unequal tiers of Windows Phone 7 handset makers.

I think it's time for Microsoft to give up the Apple ghost. Company executives need to come to grips with the fact that Microsoft is not Apple and is never going to be. They also need to realize and genuinely believe that this is OK.

Microsoft can't have it both ways. The company must either believe in the closed, Apple-style ecosystem, where it controls the hardware, software and services itself, or it must believe in a partner ecosystem. Unlike many armchair pundits, I'm not arguing that the world has changed and only a closed ecosystem can work. Microsoft has built itself on a huge -- and, to date, successful -- partner network.

But if the 'Softies are unhappy with the devices, applications and services that this network is building, they should step in and encourage partners to build products that are more in tune with what customers want. Microsoft building self-branded hardware, software and services that compete with partners' offerings is not the answer.

Microsoft execs would also do well to remember that strategies that work for Apple aren't going to be slam dunks for Microsoft. Example: beta testing or a lack thereof. Apple is not and has never been a company that designs products based on extensive customer testing and feedback. Businessweek quoted Jobs back in 1998 as boasting, "It's really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don't know what they want until you show it to them."

That way of operating may work for consumer electronics or for products with relatively small installed bases. But it seems untenable for products used by billions in both consumer and business settings. That seemingly isn't deterring the Windows and Office teams from moving more toward the Apple way, however.

While both teams talk up all the telemetry data they gather on customer usage of their products, they're doing less and less testing in a way that actually affects product design. By the time Microsoft testers get their hands on a new Windows or Office release, the development teams have already finalized it.

Then there's the issue of management styles. Stories about the wrath of Jobs -- like those about former Microsoft CEO Bill Gates -- abound. But there was a key difference between the two. Gates wasn't a micromanager like his Apple counterpart. Many Apple fans relish stories about Jobs's overzealous attention to details, such as the color of a letter in a logo.

But shouldn't the CEO of a company be more attuned to the bigger picture and trust his employees to take care of the details? While Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer doesn't seem interested in micromanaging, at least one of Redmond's top-level executives seems to be well down that path. (Hello, Mr. Sinofsky!)

Microsoft needs to compete with Apple and learn from Apple. But the company doesn't need to become Apple.



About the Author

Mary Jo Foley is editor of the ZDNet "All About Microsoft" blog and has been covering Microsoft for about two decades. She has a new book out, Microsoft 2.0 (John Wiley & Sons, May 2008), about what's next for Microsoft in the post-Gates era.

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