Last year one of my friends quoted something from Twitter that has had my noodle cooking for a while now:
Welcome to the 21st century. Java is a restricted platform, Google is evil, Apple is a monopoly, and Microsoft is the underdog.
The early 2000′s have not been kind to Microsoft. Windows Vista was met with dismay upon release, despite a variety of technology enhancements over Windows XP. Arch-rival Apple had gone from near bankruptcy to titan with the iPod and a refresh of both its Mac hardware line and operating system. With its new muscle, the Cupertino-based firm has exacted a serious toll on Redmond’s annual revenues across the consumer sector in the past decade.
Google’s rise to power and the introduction of open source as an enterprise standard has also bloodied Microsoft. In addition to providing Redmond with a new major threat in a variety of software markets, the blossoming of Google has helped to propel the parallel rise of open source software in enterprise deployments. No longer was running an expensive Windows Server with SQL, and IIS the norm. The LAMP (Linux Apache MySQL PHP) stack emerged and eliminated Microsoft’s foothold in the web server market – a paradigm shift propelled by competitors Oracle and Google.
Even worse Microsoft was no longer cool. True – Apple’s artistic flair and Jobs’ beatnick style helped to always make the company the more hip alternative. But Microsoft always remained easily within the top three of in-demand tech companies to either intern or start ones’ career in. Google and Post-Google Silicon Valley firms like Facebook have largely usurped Redmond as the fun place to be for new engineers, jeopardizing Microsoft’s position in the eyes of young hacker talent.
This is a very dangerous proposition for Redmond. If Generation Y decides to go to Microsoft’s competition instead, innovation for the next twenty years in computing will go with them.
Even in the first strokes of this new decade though, it’s clear that there’s a change in the wind coming from the cold north of Seattle. Post-Gates Microsoft has emerged swinging hard, wielding an impressive value proposition to consumers and young job-seeking engineers. Truly, winter is coming. Redmond is striking back.
While Apple certainly commands a significant control of the consumer electronics and ultra-mobile computing space, and both Apple and Google remain the dominant players of the skyrocketing mobile phone market in the United States, Microsoft remains strong in its core competencies and is gaining fast in the mobile OS sector. Windows 7 is considered a success at 250 million units sold as of Q4 2010. Windows Phone 7, Microsoft’s late entry into the mobile OS market, is gaining remarkable steam on Android and iOS and expected to supplant RIM’s OS in market share by the end of 2012. Microsoft Office remains the dominant Office suite despite a variety of (even free) alternatives, and Redmond remains an exciting and fun place to start one’s journey into technology despite heavy competition.
So what happened? How has Microsoft been able to reverse their fortune and strike back at their competition in just three years?
They refreshed their brand and technology strategy from the inside out. In effect, Microsoft is rebuilding the death star we all saw in the 90′s. Only this time it’s bigger, stronger, more popular, and minimizes the number of catastrophically explosive exhaust ports.
Microsoft has started to recover its momentum in three ways:
Beauty – UX/HCI
Much of Apple’s rise to power is arguably the result of their competitive advantage in industrial design. The iPod, the Macbook, and even OSX are all cool because they provide an amazing user experience. In contrast, Windows XP was – while ubiquitous – boring. Early 2000′s and 90′s desktop PC’s were beige monoliths that did little to defeat Apple’s portrayal of the PC industry in their famous 1984 ad. Even when competitors began to release MP3 players with similar functionality to the iPod that were more friendly to Windows, they were quickly discarded in favor of the more beautifully functional Apple alternative. Microsoft addressed this need by pushing their research initiatives towards the ever-important and nascent fields of UX (user experience design) and HCI (Human Computer Interaction). Much of this was the result of them hiring Chief Scientist Bill Buxton, an eccentric computer scientist cum industrial designer who helped the firm revolutionize its approach to how the company’s products interact with the user.
Examples of Microsoft’s new emphasis on UX design can be seen in the Zune and Windows 7/Windows Vista’s Aero interface.While Apple and Google continue to lead at the front by having first-mover advantage with technology like mutlitouch and instant-boot technology, Microsoft’s investments have them hot on their trail – and in some cases even superior. The Xbox 360, Windows 7, and Windows Phone 7 showcase exemplary UX polish that’s accentuated by a fluent and inarguably beautiful symphony of typography, solid realization of core design fundamentals, and functionality. This has allowed them to close the gap with OSX in operating system UX, and even enabled the company to make their late entrance into the mobile phone market a disruptive one.
Popularity – Entice the Resource Market
Being a college programmer is a bit of a mixed bag. Even though you’re an invaluable resource to large companies because of your fresh ideas and wide-eyed wonder, your lack of experience with the development of a company’s technology is a detriment.This makes introducing development experience core to a company’s product development key for major tech firms, and explains why firms like IBM and Google spend considerable sums of money in contributing research and technology to major tech schools in order to help control the curriculum of computer science majors.
Microsoft realized that their traditional approach of “being the only game in town” was slipping with the rise of open source languages and OS’s like Java and Linux. Furthermore, by not being beautiful, late ’90′s/early 2000′s MSFT was even less incentivizing college students to invest time in learning proliferating core Microsoft technologies like the early .NET framework and the Windows API. Microsoft has since rolled out a series of programs meant to win back Generation Y.
Addressing the issue of cost, Microsoft created the MSDNAA (Microsoft Developer Network Academic Alliance). This allowed vetted tech schools to provide free versions of Windows, SQL server, and development tools to college students. The MSDNAA allowed Microsoft to better compete with free open source software, and trumped expensive student alternatives within Apple that required college students to purchase membership in Apple’s expensive developer program.
Addressing the issue of popularity, Microsoft created the MSP (Micrsoft Student Partner) Program and Imagine Cup. MSP’s are paid Microsoft developer evangelists recruited out of universities to popularize the brand. Soon MSP-run Microsoft events became ubiquitous at many key campuses in the United States, with the attraction of free Xbox 360s and video games helping to add to the brand’s appeal. Imagine Cup, Microsoft’s humanitarian invention competition, allowed student inventors a paid outlet to compete for seed funding for a socially conscious projects using Redmond’s technology.
All of these measures have been met with wide appeal, and the brand’s image continues to improve with this core audience.
Muscle – Capitalizing off Competitive Advantage
While in decline, Microsoft was far from dead in the ground. The company’s rebound can also be attributed to strategically using more popular aspects of their brand to push the company’s development initiatives.A good example of this is their use of the Xbox 360. The Xbox brand has been a strong player in the video game console space since 2001. Modern development for the Xbox is largely done in the XNA Framework, which uses .NET. This ensures that game developers wishing to release on the Xbox need to use .NET, and further popularizes the .NET suite (particularly C#) via complementary demand.
Microsoft may not be the coolest game in town. But it’s certainly not dying anymore, and companies like RIM – and even Apple and Google – need to realize that Redmond is coming back with a vengeance.
Cue the Imperial March theme.
SF New Tech Contributor Andrew “Andy” Manoske is a PM by day, hacker by night, and sometimes in the evening he fights crime. He currently serves as a product manager at NetApp – the youngest in the company’s history – and previously held technical positions at SAP, Microsoft, and Electronic Arts. He received his Bachelors of Arts in Economics and Computer Science from San Jose State University in 2010, and was a finalist in Microsoft’s Imagine Cup competition and the Silicon Valley Neat Ideas Fair.
Twitter: @a2d2 Website: http://www.zomghacks.net