Foley on Microsoft

Is Microsoft Too Old for Web 2.0?

As Microsoft gets older, can the company continue to create products that younger users want to buy?

When I first started writing about technology in 1983 -- yes, I was a prodigy -- there weren't a lot of women tech reporters. And yes, I was asked more than once while waiting to interview an exec to "go get coffee before the reporter shows up."

"I am that reporter," I told a few red-faced folks who didn't think a woman was ready, willing or able to write about operating systems.

But any sexism I've encountered over the years has now been more than surpassed by the ageism I encounter as I continue to cover Microsoft. I'm talking about comments like, "Go sit in your rocker and stop writing about tech, Grandma!" It's the kind of stuff that seems to be hurled primarily -- though not exclusively -- by Mac fanboys, many of whom take offense at anyone who dares question Apple.

This isn't a column about ageism, per se. It's a column about age and whether Microsoft -- a company run by people in their forties and older -- can make products and services that younger-generation users want to buy. With Microsoft stepping up its forays into the consumer market with Windows 7, Windows Mobile, Zune, Xbox, Windows Live, Bing and more, the question is more pertinent than ever.

I've noticed on various blogs and forums recently that there are more and more age-specific criticisms levied against Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer (who is 52), Chief Software Architect Ray Ozzie (54), Microsoft Business Division President Stephen Elop (45), Microsoft Entertainment and Devices Division President Robbie Bach (47) and others.

Does Bach really use a QWERTY-keyboard smartphone? Yes, though he also has an all-touch phone too, he said recently. Does Ballmer understand why the rumored Microsoft Courier Tablet PC will be the hottest PC on the planet? Well, Ballmer said in late October he hadn't seen the Courier videos, so he couldn't say much about it.

Does Elop understand why Office is a sitting duck, with users now expecting free or cheap productivity services to be accessible from anywhere? For the answer to this, see Office Web Apps, which is due in mid-2010, for Microsoft's first step in reacting to Google Docs and other Web 2.0 productivity contenders.

Microsoft has a bunch of incubation teams focused on products to appeal to generations X, Y and Z. The Pink phones -- which may never come to market, according to some recent tips -- were designed for teens and twentysomethings. Microsoft's recruiters are still going after young talent. Some teams -- Windows Live comes to mind -- are packed with younger employees who for sure weren't in Redmond during the Department of Justice's antitrust days.

However, none of this guarantees that Microsoft's products will win over the new generation of consumers and IT pros looking for gadgets, PCs, and software and services.

Maybe Microsoft should field two distinct lines of products: one for the Web 2.0 set that thinks that FourSquare is more important than SharePoint, and one for folks who still see an appeal for a dedicated e-reader or a multimedia player not integrated into a smartphone. A blogging colleague of mine recently said that Amazon's Kindles are for "old folks" and twentysomethings aren't into reading books -- and definitely not e-books.

How can Microsoft create products that appeal to the next generation while not alienating customers? Write me and let me know what you think.

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's the author of "Microsoft 2.0" (John Wiley & Sons, 2008), which examines what's next for Microsoft in the post-Gates era.


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