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Poor Microsoft. Everybody, but everybody has advice for the huge-but-struggling software maker that just launched its latest reorg in hopes of fixing what ails it. Some want it to dump Bing and sell off Xbox. Others, including our own Derrick Harris, say nixing Bing would be nuts, given the knowledge base it provides the rest of Microsoft’s businesses.
As someone who’s covered Microsoft on and off for more than 20 years, I have my own thoughts on what Microsoft’s plan of action should be, and it starts with this: Fix Windows, dammit.
I know, they say they’re doing this. Microsoft has spent big dough on Windows 8 and now Windows 8.1 to address deficits that have left Windows PCs a distinct second option for more and more users. But here’s one interesting data point: Every single former Microsoft exec I’ve met with in the past two years — and there have been quite a few — carries a MacBook Air (s aapl). These folks left the Big M on good terms, so that’s gotta hurt.
Capping that off, last year, an HP exec was embarrassed to be caught with a MacBook in a coffee shop. I had to swear never to reveal his name. If one of Microsoft’s biggest hardware partners — which supplies free HP PCs to employees — can’t persuade its own execs to use them, there is indeed trouble in paradise.
It’s fine to chase Google in search and Amazon in cloud services, but Windows has to come first — and as always it’s hard to get Microsoft to prioritize anything.
Some of this Windows problem is beyond the company’s control: Unlike Apple, Microsoft relies on third-party hardware makers, which burden their machines with annoying crapware. I’m speaking from experience here. Even as I type this (full disclosure — on a MacBook Air) an HP Pavilion is staring at me from across the room. It hasn’t been turned on in months. One reason for this: it takes a full minute to power up. Microsoft started to break this dependency with the Surface. Will it start manufacturing all its own stuff or work out agreements with OEMs to cut the extraneous software? I don’t know — they haven’t brought me in on the strategizing yet — but they have to do something.
Microsoft can recoup lost ground if it can deliver on promises to make the Windows 8.1 (or 8.x and beyond) experience wonderful across a range of devices — tablets, laptops, PCs, Xbox. Naming Terry Myerson, the former Window Mobile guy the chief of Windows across devices might help here. But this is still a big “if” because to ensure uniformity of experience, it has to wrangle Dell(s dell), HP(s hpq), Lenovo and others to deliver a crap-free experience — including in their retail PC models. It’s by no means clear whether that can happen, especially since these companies will compete more with Microsoft with their own clouds and services going forward.
Any way you cut it, Microsoft’s in a tough spot. Will it be like IBM that reinvented itself under then chairman Lou Gerstner in the 1990s? Or will it be like Novell which used to own the corporate networking market — and was as big a deal as Microsoft — but which is now nearly irrelevant?