The current state of Microsoft

The software landscape of our world is fast moving.  If you look back even five years ago, it’s amazing how much has changed.  Microsoft is clearly the big giant of the software world.  They make all of the software we know and love, things like Windows, Office, and Outlook.  Their success is so impressive, they’ve become ubiquitous.  I cannot think of a single person that doesn’t have a computer powered by windows.  The same is true of business, you basically find Microsoft everywhere.  I even spent \$1,000 of my own hard earned money back in 2000 so I could run a legal copy of Windows 2000 Server.  The current state of Microsoft is good.  In fact the current state of Microsoft is too good.  It’s like people just throw money at them.

Enter 2007.  Things have changed.  Somehow the landscape has a very different feel than it did before.  At one company I worked for they found themselves moving more and more of their critical business servers onto Unix.  Other smaller companies have stopped using Microsoft software all together.  You read in the news about entire countries moving away from Microsoft based software.  When I think back over the past few weeks, it’s pretty interesting the things I’ve done without Windows.  I’ve updated web applications, made database changes, versioned software, burnt dvd’s, synced an Ipod, and communicated with friends.  It wasn’t too long ago that Windows was really the only operating system that supported the software that allowed you to do the things you wanted.  That’s not really the case anymore.

Something else has changed too.  When I really think about it.. I realize that my perception of things isn’t exactly accurate.  It’s actually been a long time now that other operating systems have let you do all sorts of neat and useful things.  So why is it that it doesn’t feel like it?  I think the answer lies in the power of Microsoft’s marketing machine.  They truly do a wonderful job of marketing.  Here are a few examples.

  1. Internet Explorer - this is very easily the worst browser that exists today.  Yet consistently I find people who somehow get all sorts of warm fuzzies from using it.  It’s like IE somehow ships with crack cocaine or something.  It boggles the mind.
  2. Microsoft Word - there is nothing really that special about it.  There are several alternate programs that do similar things, yet you find most business folks that would kill you for even the thought of taking it away from them.
  3. Outlook - the holy grail of Microsoft software.  I admit I’m biased on this one.  I think it’s horrible, and if anything… Exchange deserves the credit for what most people give to Outlook.

It’s here that I see the future state of Microsoft changing.  Put simply, I think Microsoft is in a world of hurt.  I see their entire business model crumbling around them.  Certainly their demise isn’t going to happen anytime soon, but it will happen.  The writing is on the wall.  Let me try to describe a few reasons why I think this to be true:

  1. Growing competition: The fact that I can put in an Ubuntu cd and quickly get a desktop that’s far more useful than a typical “fresh install” of windows is pretty sad.  How can a community driven operating system even begin to compete with Windows is beyond me.  Some might argue that even though Ubuntu ships with more useful software than Windows does, Windows still offers more in the end.  I tend to disagree.  Sure there are things I can’t do without windows, but there’s way more that I can’t do with Windows.  Between Linux, and Mac alone - Windows is really not offering a compelling product.
  2. Lack of innovation: What has Microsoft created lately that’s innovative?  If you think Vista you are in for a shock.  I haven’t met a single person who’s used Vista and thinks there’s any reason to pay for it.  In fact the OEM’s are even giving push back to Microsoft on their demands that Vista be the only operating system available on their computers in 2008.  You can even take this back to the late 1980’s when Microsoft did get a lot of their ideas from Xerox and Mac.  In fact if you look at the desktop or server space today on Mac and Linux, it’s pretty nuts how far Microsoft is from being an innovator.
  3. What’s a fat client?: Microsoft has grown their business off of fat client based applications.  That isn’t the case anymore as things are/have moved to the online space.  When I think about the popular online properties I really cannot think of anything created by Microsoft.  I suppose two that come to mine are hotmail.com and msn.com.  Is the success of these driven my marketing or quality of product?  The answer seems simple to me.  When it comes to quality of product both Google and Yahoo have destroyed Microsoft.  In fact when I think about some of the more popular web properties, things like Yahoo, Google, Flickr, Youtube, Myspace - they’re not made by Microsoft, and they’re not even powered by Microsoft software.
  4. Education, money, and software don’t mix: A quick look at my resume and you’ll see that I’m not exactly your typical student.  Yet I have spent a lot of time studding stuff both in university and out.  I’ve seen the cost of software effect the education of a student over and over.  I think it’s crazy that kids in school can’t use software when so much is free for their use.  Microsoft has clearly used their machine to control that space somehow.  I’m all about business and their right to make money.  But give me a break, back off of kids.  When I read a story about a junior high lab teacher who saved the school money by using all the open source community has to offer - and gets shut down… I get all fired up.  I’ll stop ranting and get to the point.  I think trying to make money off of students is bad business.  When the students realize that they can do the same stuff they need to in college without having to spent the money on Microsoft products they will.  And when they enter the business world, they’ll bring these ideas with them.

I know I’m a Linux fan boy.  I realize that I can’t exactly divorce myself from my personal preferences when it comes to this stuff, but I genuinely see Microsoft as in trouble.  Lately I’ve been trying to think of what products they make that really stand out above the crowd in terms of quality - and I’m struggling to find very many.  Currently they still dominate in so many ways, and for good reason(s).  They have some really great products, but I think their days are numbered.