The Strategy of Retreat?

I’m confused. Honestly. I have been using Microsoft products for almost 30 years, since the earliest days of Windows/286 and the DOS version of Word and Microsoft Mail, and I’m confused. I’ve grown up with MS products most of my professional life, and have gotten quite good at navigating the intricacies and nuances of their software from server products right down into my phone and I don’t quite know what to think.

Microsoft appears, desperately not to want to become the modern era’s IBM, and thank the maker for that. But after this week I’m confused. The signals that Microsoft seems to send out is they are retreating from consumer and end user and it’s all about ‘the cloud’ and ‘mobile first’. Yeah, okay, great. But here’s the thing, the cloud is boring and mobile first is consumer driven. The cloud is IBM…it’s really just another way to say Internet or Hosted or Mainframe. It’s deadly dull. Sure it provides the services and backend for all the cool gizmos and apps people use everyday, but it is the interface to services that drives our modern world. Instagram? Facebook? Snapchat? Really, just big databases and comm services with clever indices and slick consumer front ends. The UX or user experience is what the consumer interacts with, and what becomes the product for people. Microsoft seems intent to get out of that business. Either that or they’re comically bad at communicating their intent. I really don’t know.

Wednesday’s proclamation that they’re massively downsizing and writing off Windows Phone is one huge lurch in the strategy that comes exactly at the wrong time for this. All during the Windows 8 timeframe they’ve been shaping the message of Universal Apps and running everything all the way down to a phone. Now, on the eve of the launch of this platform they scale back. On the eve of the launch. What. The. F$%#.

I love Windows phone, but I am a realist–it has a tiny marketshare. But it did provide a showcase for their vision and Windows 10 promised to perhaps move the needle a bit with things like Continuum. It might even make a cool business platform. Or for some of us that just don’t like grids of icons, an alternative to the dominant players. Why on earth would they pick NOW to announce a drastic reduction in the platform? Before they even get to test the strategy? Are we seeing Satya Nadella’s revolution purge every idea from the last regime just to get it out?

Some of the new strategy makes great sense, reduce the number of products, get a damn flagship in the market, focus on business users, stop catering to the lowest of the low smartphone market, but again, we see them throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Change for change sake. Maybe they could have put the write off of Nokia out into 2016 to let the fledgling Windows 10 OS at least try to succeed. Instead all the headlines were ‘Windows Phone is Dead’. Microsoft seems genetically incapable of controlling their message and communicating a vision.

Witness today’s announcements of Microsoft abandoning Travel, Food & Drink and Health, all their MSN extras. Not necessarily heavily used apps, but really nicely done, showing developers that Windows is a decent platform to develop on. Microsoft has dumbed down the tablet UX on Windows 10 (see, well, just about all my other posts). They’ve been waffling on services. But a new release of SQL Server? They’re all over that. Microsoft seems to pay lip service to the front end, do a little work, then bail. So, as both a back end consumer of their ‘cloud’ products, and (at least for now) a user of their consumer products, I offer a few things I think they could do to shore up the ‘mobile first’ part of that company line they love saying.

  • Make some big moves in acquisition. If you really want to be in the consumer space, you need an ecosystem. Not the weak tea we have now. Xbox Groove Music is great. Buy Spotify or Rdio and integrate in. Buy a video service. Fill out the media offerings. In every conversation lately about streaming music services, Microsoft is not even mentioned when people list out the services. Groove is really good, make it better. Push it everywhere. Same for video, go big or go home. And don’t go home, you need this to build the ecosystem. You need music, video, books, magazines, games to be in the game. If you can’t build it, buy it. Then for the love of all that’s holy don’t quit after a year. Without the ecosystem you are not a player in mobile and you’ll never be anything meaningful to a consumer. Oh, and I think you can make money there too.
  • Build or buy a small set top box and do what you were going to do in the living room. It looks like Microsoft was going to have Xbox deep into media services, then of course, chickened out and now it’s all about games! Fine. You need a living room play that’s not $400.
  • Build your own Amazon Echo but for Cortana. Set Cortana free in her own device, tie it into services. I love my Echo, but it doesn’t connect to all my services, accounts, email, reminders. I want a Cortana device detecting when I get home, reminding me of things, playing music, controlling all those Internet of Things you guys keep talking about. You have mic array and sensors from Kinect, speakers from Nokia, wireless tech and services–build it!
  • Speaking of Cortana, ramp that up big time. Integrate it everywhere. I sometimes feel Microsoft is too sensitive on the privacy front. Yes, it’s critically important, but talk to Google people on why they love Google Now. It’s creepy but they love it. We’ll love it too.
  • Keep buying up those cool apps. One great way to get on to every platform and win is to just buy the cool stuff. If Microsoft can’t do it anymore, acquire it. They’ve been on a roll lately and should definitely keep going.
  • Build more apps, not less. Those Food, Health, Travel, etc. type apps are almost best in class in the Windows store. You need to build more, not less of these. Unless and until there are stellar selections of apps in the Windows store, Microsoft must play lead developer.
  • Band is cool, it’s almost a smartwatch. Make one of those too. This market’s still nascent, and amazingly, Apple’s entry is kind of landing with a thud. Pounce on it. Do that Internet of Things thing.
  • HoloLens. yes please, more of this everywhere. Don’t listen to the whiners of field of vision, improve and iterate!
  • Promote the hell out of Continuum for Windows Phone. There is an insane amount of desire built up to simply carry a pocket device, drop it down on a pad and have your whole environment unfold around you on large screens. It seems like the pieces are finally there, now tell everyone about it.

And finally, everyone at Microsoft needs to go to YouTube and watch those Microsoft Visions of the Future videos again. Look at those displays, interfaces, services, seamless integration and devices. Notice there’s not a desktop or Start Menu to be had in any of them. Get back a sense of wonder and vision and make things cool. You’ll win consumers every time.

In Star Trek, no one ever goes and visits the Enterprise’s server room and wonders at the amazing future of the cloud. It’s all about how you connect to the user, and the Android app for Word isn’t going to wow ’em in the modern mobile world.

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