This is an exciting time of year for tech users - which is now all of us. The biggest show is the battle between smartphone and tablet leader Apple - which has announced new products with the iPhone 5 and iPad Mini - and the now flailing, old industry leader Microsoft which is trying to re-ignite its sales with a new tablet, operating system and office productivity suite.
I'm reminded of an old joke. Steve the trucker drives with his pal Alex. Someone at the diner says "Steve, imagine you're going 60 miles an hour when you start down a hill. You keep gaining speed, nearing 90. Then you realize your brakes are out. Now, you see one quarter mile ahead a turn in the road, because there's a barricade and beyond that a monster cliff. What do you do?"
Steve smiles and says "Well, I wake up Alex."
"What? Why?" asks the questioner.
"Because Alex has never seen a wreck like the one we're about to have."
Microsoft has played "bet the company" on its Windows 8 launch, updated office suite and accompanied Surface tablet. (More on why it didn't have to do this later.) Now Microsoft has to do something almost never done in business. The company has to overcome a 3 year lateness to market and upend a multi-billion dollar revenue and brand leader. It must overcome two very successful market pioneers, both of which have massive sales, high growth, very good margins, great cash flow and enormous war chests (Apple has over $100B cash.)
Just on the face of it, the daunting task sounds unlikely to succeed.
But there is far more reason to be skeptical. Apple created these markets with new products about which people had few, if any conceptions. But today customers have strong viewpoints on both what a smartphone and tablet should be like to use - and what they expect from Microsoft. And these two viewpoints are almost diametrically opposed.
Yet Microsoft has tried bridging them in the new product - and in doing so guaranteed the products will do poorly. By trying to please everyone Microsoft, like the Ford Edsel, is going to please almost no one:
- Since the initial product viewing, almost all professional reviewers have said the Surface is neat, but not fantastically so. It is different from iOS and Google's Android products, but not superior. It has generated very little enthusiasm.
- Tests by average users have shown the products to be non-intuitive. Especially when told they are Microsoft products. So the Apple-based interface intuition doesn't come through for easy use, nor does historical Microsoft experience. Average users have been confused, and realize they now must learn a 3rd interface - the iOS or Android they have, the old Microsoft they have, and now this new thing. It might as well be Linux for all its similarity to Microsoft.
- For those who were excited about having native office products on a tablet, the products aren't the same as before - in feel or function. And the question becomes, if you really want the office suite do you really want a tablet or should you be using a laptop? The very issue of trying to use Office on the Surface easily makes people rethink the question, and start to realize that they may have said they wanted this, but it really isn't the big deal they thought it would be. The tablet and laptop have different uses, and between Surface and Win8 they are seeing learning curve cost maybe isn't worth it.
- The new Win8 - especially on the tablet - does not support a lot of the "professional" applications written on older Windows versions. Those developers now have to redevelop their code for a new platform - and many won't work on the new tablet processors.
- Many have been banking on Microsoft winning the "enterprise" market. Selling to CIOs who want to preserve legacy code by offering a Microsoft solution. But they run into two problems. (1) Users now have to learn this 3rd, new interface. If they have a Galaxy tab or iPad they will have to carry another device, and learn how to use it. Do not expect happy employees, or executives, who expressly desire avoiding both these ideas. (2) Not all those old applications (drivers, code, etc) will port to the new platform so easily. This is not a "drop in" solution. It will take IT time and money - while CEOs keep asking "why aren't you doing this for my iPad?"
Everyone knows that PC sales are going to decline. Unfortunately, this launch may well accelerate that decline. Remember how slowly people were willing to switch to Vista? How slowly they adopted Microsoft 7 and Office 2010? There are still millions of users running XP - and even Office XP (Office Professional 2003.) These new products may convince customers that the time and effort to "upgrade" simply means its time to switch.
Microsoft has fallen into a classic problem the Dean of innovation Clayton Christensen discusses. Microsoft long ago overshot the user need for PCs and office automation tools. But instead of focusing on developing new solutions - like Apple did by introducing greater mobility with its i products - Microsoft has diligently, for a decade, continued to dump money into overshooting the user needs for its basic products. They can't admit to themselves that very, very, very few people are looking for a new spreadsheet or word processing application update. Or a new operating system for their laptop.
These new Microsoft products will NOT cause people to quit the trend to mobile devices. They will not change the trend of corporate users supplying their own devices for work (there's now even an IT acronym for this movement [BYOD,] and a Wikipedia page.) It will not find a ready, excited market of people wanting to learn yet another interface, especially to use old applications they thought they already new!
It did not have to be this way.
Years ago Microsoft started pouring money into xBox. And although investors can complain about the historical cost, the xBox (and Kinect) are now market leaders in the family room. Honestly,Microsoft already has - especially with new products released this week - what people are hoping they can soon buy from AppleTV or GoogleTV; products that are at best vaporware.
Long-term, there is yet another great battle to be fought. What will be the role of monitors, scattered in homes and bars, and in train stations, lobbies and everywhere else? Who will control the access to monitors which will be used for everything from entertainment (video/music,) to research and gaming. The tablet and smartphones may well die, or mutate dramatically, as the ability to connect via monitors located nearly everywhere using ---- xBox?
But, this week all discussion of the new xBox Live and music applications were overshadowed by the CEO's determination to promote the dying product line around Windows8.
This was simply stupid. Ballmer should be fired.
The PC products should be managed for a cash hoarding transition into a smaller market. Investments should be maximized into the new products that support the next market transition. xBox and Kinect should be held up as game changers, and Microsoft should be repositioned as a leader in the family and conference room; an indespensible product line in an ever-more-connected world.
But that didn't happen this week. And the CEO keeps heading straight for the cliff. Maybe when he takes the truck over the guard rail he'll finally be replaced. Investors can only wake up and watch - and hope it happens sooner, rather than later.
(Adam hartung is the managing director at Spark Partners.)