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By | Trevor Pott 26th November 2013 08:05

Why Microsoft absolutely DOESN'T need its own Steve Jobs

It should differentiate itself by not copying Apple

Sysadmin Blog Microsoft is a company in transition. Speculation is rampant and everyone in the IT industry seems to have a strong opinion on what Microsoft should – and shouldn't – do.

Analysts are increasingly lumping PCs in with mobile devices, a trend that's decidedly bad for Microsoft. Others remain sceptical of the practice and seem to see Microsoft's future as far less bleak.

Market share changes and the upcoming change in CEO have made Microsoft the focus of armchair executives the world over. Amidst the dross there are a lot of well reasoned opinions by seasoned Microsoft observers and analysts, with an increasing number saying Microsoft needs its own Steve Jobs.

In the months since the announcement of Ballmer's retirement I have tried to see the world as my learned colleagues see it; to view the Microsoft of the future through the lens they communally share. I cannot. I neither believe Microsoft is doomed, nor do I believe that it is invulnerable, and I emphatically do not believe that Microsoft needs its own Steve Jobs.

Quick recap

Ballmer's tenure at the helm has been dubbed "Microsoft's lost decade". An unflattering term that is misused by many who blithely ignore that Ballmer's tenure still saw Microsoft grow profits by an average of over 15 per cent per year to a company with a net income of $23bn. We should all hope to fail so well.

There were errors aplenty during Ballmer's time. Longhorn's failure, the Vista/2007 series disaster, aQuantive and so forth. The Redmondian eat-your-own-young management system was a spectacularly failed experiment. Ballmer weathered it all, until now.

At the core of the Ballmer departure debate are Windows 8 and the outright failure of Microsoft to understand – and react appropriately to – the change in consumer buying habits. Microsoft's inability to counter Android and iOS has shattered confidence and created heated divisions amongst investors and the technorati alike.

The Interface Formerly Known As Metro (TIFKAM), the UI that unifies Windows 8, Windows RT and Windows Phone isn't head-and-shoulders above the rest. It is, however, strongly competitive with Android and iOS. It has earned a strong core of vociferous evangelists not unlike the turn of the millennium Macolytes.

This much everyone can seemingly agree upon. The details of what Microsoft did wrong (and how to fix it) are where I start to diverge from more prominent Microsoft watchers out there.

Microsoft Tiles 8.11 for Fondlegroups

In my view the idea of a unified Microsoft OS was a brilliant idea, terribly executed. The deployment of the Ribbon Bar should have been solid evidence that Microsoft is not good at change management. Windows 8 should have ended any doubts.

Chip Heath (a business professor at Stanford) and Dan Heath (a senior fellow at Duke University in North Carolina) provide analysis in their book Switch: How to change things when change is hard that underscores my belief.

I'll give you the Coles Notes on it; for a majority of change situations, you need to manage three things: people's rational thoughts, their emotions, and their environment. It needs to seem reasonable to make the change, there needs be an emotionally compelling reason to change, and the change needs to be easy.

In essence, you need to tweak their environment as much as possible to remove obstacles that will prevent them from adopting the desired new behavior. This is the antithesis of how Microsoft's change management works in practice.

Microsoft prefers to simply toss new UIs at punters. Microsoft demands end users, corporate buyers and partners pick up the costs of training and invest the time convincing all stakeholders that the change involved is necessary and good. This is regardless of whether or not there actually is a measurable benefit for any stakeholders other than Microsoft.

This was a non-optimal change management methodology for introducing TIFKAM to desktop users. It was Microsoft's largest mistake.

Had Microsoft released its new UI as a series of OSes with their own brand name (Microsoft Tiles?) I believe the world would have embraced it enthusiastically. Microsoft could then have shipped an actual Windows 8 for the keyboard-and-mouse crowd that was the same operating system but without the drastic UI changes.

Yes, it would have been more SKUs, more diversification and so forth…but it also would have been an approach that takes into account the human factors regarding change management. Newness under a new name isn't as readily compared to extant gear.

Irrational as it might seem, users will gleefully accept a glitch or a loss in productivity if the new widget is to supplement, not supplant our existing tools. Microsoft chose instead to attempt to leverage the Windows brand name to drive buy-in of TIFKAM without acknowledging that the brand also brings with it expectations.

The result was the opposite of desired: TIFKAM has instead damaged the Windows brand name.

Picture this: a brand new tablet operating system that maintains compatibility with your old Windows x86 apps but goes head-to-head with Android and iOS. Not as an "upgrade" or replacement for your traditional keyboard-and-mouse devices, but as a supplement. An iPad that could run Windows apps if it had to!

Had this been my first interaction with Windows 8, I might have switched from Android. Today, I'm far too invested in the Android ecosystem to dream of switching; convincing me to switch to a Microsoft mobile ecosystem would be roughly as difficult as it is to convince your average business to switch to from Windows to Mac OSX.

OMG Steve Jobs!!11eleventyone

Regardless of failures or successes past, this is the reality that Microsoft's next CEO is inheriting. Microsoft is heavily entrenched on the corporate desktop because of decades of legacy apps that are going to be around for a long time. Nobody is even bothering to compete seriously in this space because the only way to capture corporate users is greenfield deployments, and there are precious few of those.

In the consumer content-consumption-device space Microsoft are facing the exact same problem in reverse. Here Microsoft is the also-ran with roughly a snowball's chance in a neutron star of convincing consumers to rebuy everything "just because." Redmondian fondleslabs just don't offer enough "wow" for anyone to make that kind of investment.

Market share matters. Don't let anyone tell you different. Ask an iPhone user why they don't switch to Android, or vice the versa. After some hemming and hawing about UI and the typical circular reasoning it will very quickly come down to apps.

It would cost me hundreds, if not thousands to re-buy all my apps and devices. I suspect that there are a great many iOS and Android users who now feel the same.

Here is where my deep disagreement with my fellow journalists comes in. Microsoft does not need a Steve Jobs. Apple under Jobs succeeded because Jobs has a vision of how a given product was going to be and he delivered that on that vision with as little outside council as corporately possible.

In some cases, Jobs' personal tastes regarding design and implementation were wild successes. Jobs also oversaw many failures. Microsoft has already tried own version of the Jobsian approach – using metrics to justify decisions already taken – and it has failed spectacularly.

Microsoft's failures are not because Microsoft has lacked vision, good ideas or great technology. Microsoft's failures have occurred due to a combination of inability to recognise great ideas when handed to them and a lack of understanding in how to present good ideas to an increasingly skeptical and disinterested public.


Under Tim Cook, Apple is persisting with its Jobsian "our way or the highway" philosophy. Google, Samsung and Amazon are engaged in a bitter Android cold war that threatens to tear the platform apart with internecine fighting. Google's other operating system, ChromeOS, takes the Jobsian diktat and wraps it up in added privacy invasion and even less user choice than the other available options.

There is a niche in consumer electronics to be filled, but it would require a complete 180 of Redmondian corporate culture for Microsoft to exploit it. Microsoft needs to listen to its user base and deliver them the software, services and devices they actually want. No tricks. No "here's a start button, but we said nothing about the menu."

Microsoft devoted itself to security and over the course of a decade became a world leader in secure software design and implementation. It's time it rewrote its corporate culture to embed change management at the same fundamental level.

Everyone else is selling a "vision" manacled to an app store buried in a walled garden. If Microsoft wants to differentiate themselves then their shtick needs to become actively engaging with customers and critics alike. That includes building things people clamor for and guaranteeing the preservation of choice regarding everything from UIs to APIs.

This is expensive. It can mean maintaining multiple UIs and APIs for each product. It means thinking about product lifecycles in terms of decades, not quarters. Engaging care in this area, however, will also lead to Microsoft regaining something it has lost: trust.

Eenie, meenie, miney…

Microsoft doesn't need a "visionary" like Steve Jobs. Microsoft's own customers are more than capable of telling it what they want and need. R&D departments, skunkworks and the entire startup scene exist to think up "the next big thing." Relying on one man at the top to be the primary inspiration driving a machine as complex and diverse as Microsoft is madness.

Microsoft's next CEO needs to steal the key ingredient from Apple's success story that Apple has itself forgotten: a religious devotion to making sure the product that ships "just works," and works as users expect it to.

The list of candidates under consideration is shrinking. If any of them strike you as able to do the job, add your thoughts, as always, in the comments below. ®

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