Apples and whoozits?

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Apple’s profit line has beaten Microsoft’s profit line.

It’s an occasion whose importance rivals one of a bygone era: The day the “Whopper beat the Big Mac,” back when the burger wars were upon us.

Comparing very much of anything having to do with Apple to anything having to do with Microsoft is about as sensible as comparing, say, General Mills and New Line Cinema. They compete where, exactly?

The usual stomping ground for this analysis is Apple’s legendary success with innovation (iPod, iPhone, iPad) compared to Microsoft’s failure with competing products (Zune, the quickly disappeared Kin, and the tragically aborted Courier).

Not to defend the indefensible … and both the Kin’s existence and Courier’s nonexistence are pretty close to indefensible … but really. Apple is a consumer products company. Its successes are in its core business. Microsoft’s most frequently ridiculed failures are in its consumer products, which, for both you and Microsoft, just aren’t very important.

What’s gone wrong with Microsoft’s innovation might be less a failure of innovation than of explanation.

Think of it as Microsoft channeling the old Novell. Back when, Novell introduced a brilliant innovation that just about killed it: Netware Directory Services (NDS), which replaced the Bindery when Novell introduced Netware 4.0. NDS offered incredible advantages over all preceding identity management technologies, along with just one small disadvantage: Nobody could make heads or tails of it, and Novell couldn’t figure out how to help them.

The upshot: Many of its customers figured the Netware 4.0 upgrade was a sufficiently radical change from its predecessor that conversion to, say, Windows NT Server was easier. Brilliant innovation resulted in a permanent loss of marketshare.

Microsoft is an IT infrastructure company, not a consumer products company. Among the disadvantages: Most in the business press who like to write about subjects like innovation and strategy lack the background to understand what successful infrastructure innovation even looks like. So they fall back on the Zune to illustrate Microsoft’s haplessness.

As is so often the case when business commentators take on technology, they’re missing the point entirely, which in this case is that Microsoft appears to be in the forefront of technology-enabled collaboration. SharePoint, Office 2010’s “simultaneous editing,” and their tight integration appear to be a strong match to the requirements of a modern workforce. That Microsoft has been inept in promoting these capabilities changes nothing about the technology itself.

And “inept” is a pale word to use in describing its failings.

Here’s just one example … a very prosaic one … of what you ought to be doing with this technology: Using it to replace all shared folders.

Right now, many employees in most organizations waste quite a lot of time managing document versions. Typically, employees send documents to each other as e-mail attachments and then, later on, struggle to merge edits performed on multiple independent copies. (Dialog: “What’s the date/time stamp on your copy? I think mine is later. What does yours say in the second paragraph of the Executive Summary? I’m pretty sure that’s the old version.”)

Or, they might make use of shared folders only to have edits from different users collide when they try to save.

Most companies, when they do roll out SharePoint, implement it as yet another place to store documents, thereby creating confusion. Were they to use it to replace shared folders and e-mail attachments, educating end-users in the miracles of document check-out, check-in, and simultaneous editing, it would be like spraying WD-40 on a squeaky hinge.

On lots and lots of squeaky hinges.

And that’s just one, very simple example.

One other dimension to this: Unlike its competitors, which seem bent on wasting the CPU that sits in front of the end-user, Microsoft hasn’t lost confidence in its value. I just wish its marketing included an emphasis on re-legitimizing the personal in personal computing.

Doing so is long overdue.

Then there’s .Net, which I confess I expected to be a miserable failure when Microsoft first introduced it. Instead, it seemingly has more mindshare than Java for mainstream application development.

Microsoft has more than its share of flaws these days, and the quality of Steve Ballmer’s leadership there is debatable. Still, it’s bad enough when we fall for great marketing that masks poorly constructed products … not a bad description of our relationship with Microsoft over the past few decades.

We now might just be facing the opposite: Marketing so poor that it disguises innovations we ought to be leveraging to the hilt.

Comments (8)

  • The computer I’m use when I work runs Windows. Doesn’t that sum it up?

  • If Microsoft are in this dilemma where they are perceived by the market as being a failure (in consumer markets) why aren’t they actively promoting their value and/or shifting mindset? Surely these perceptions – false or not – must damage long term shareholder value. And as for the Sharepoint example, Lotus Notes was doing that 20 years ago. Now there’s a lost opportunity…

  • Bob, it’s a good thing you’re a computer geek not a mechanic. The analogy of using WD-40 on a squeaky hinge is a poor example. WD-40 consists mainly of a solvent which dries out quickly, and it’s proper use is as a cleaner, not a lubricant. The hinge will begin squeaking again in short order unless it has lubricant with oil applied.

    PS – I have both a Zune and an iPod. The Zune is a superior product with much better software. However, Apple’s marketing has convinced more people that the iPod is sexier than a Zune, so more people buy them.

  • Bob…

    I think you are right on target. Nobody mentions the elephant in the room. One thing nobody mentions that MS mostly make software which has some cost involved with programmers, but very little cost in replicating. Even though Apple makes a tidy profit on the hardware, the cost of the underlying hardware it still a considerable fraction of the selling price.

    So, which would we all rather be? The one selling $1 widgets for $10 or $6 widgets for $10? Sure, Apple has the same revenue now, but what are the costs to make that revenue? Shouldn’t the real measure be profits AFTER expenses?

    Disclaimer: I’m an equal opportunity technology user. I use MS and Apple and Linux products. If it’s a good product and suits what I need to do, I buy it and use it and recommend it.


  • Sharepoint is a great concept with not-very-good execution. We try to use it extensively in this company, but it’s very, very difficult to use well, so most folks still ship stuff via e-mail.

  • Microsoft has a long history of starting with half baked ideas and then perfecting them in a painful number of years, hence the failure of customers to actually get it when they get the WD-40. Microsoft’s trump card has always been to lower the cost of infrastructure technology a lot with as little technical innovation as they can get away with and once they have the captive market, improve the product until it sort of fulfills its original promise. Its not necessarily a bad premise from Microsoft’s point of view but it has historically distorted a lot of IT budgets thus causing the pain to upgrade syndrome typical of many IT workshops large and small. My two cents worth….

  • Bob, there’s a pundit who has the perfect explanation of what’s going on here. Maybe you’ve heard of him, guy named Bob Lewis.

    The rule in play is that there’s no such thing as a technology product. The corollary is that nobody wants a technology product. They want the results.

    As long as Microsoft is selling the Sharepoint technology product, nobody is going to like it. As soon as they start selling the Sharepoint experience — meaning they successfully and compellingly describe what it’s for and how to use it effectively — then people will recognize any innovation it contains.

  • Gaah! Of course that should read, “There’s no such thing as a technology project.”

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