Microsoft: Cool Enough for the Smartphone Era?
For a technology company whose business is so closely tied to the pace of innovation, it's an uncomfortable question. But it's a perennial one that Microsoft watchers have raised almost from the time that Bill Gates acquired the rights from Seattle Computer Products to the operating system which came to be known as MS-DOS.
Though Microsoft has undeniably been one of the most financially successful companies in techdom, when it comes to the wow factor, it's an after-thought. These days, the buzz surrounds names like Apple, Twitter or Google.
The latest flub: Microsoft's surprise cancellation of its Kin smartphones less than two months after the product's debut. The sudden announcement was a marketing embarrassment and it also called into question whether Microsoft still has the tech chops to delight a younger, social-network savvy generation of new customers. Or had the company reached a tipping point, where it had become too big and plodding to make products that developers and consumers found hip? As the Times noted, the Kin debacle wasn't a one-off:
Microsoft PR gamely trotted out a laundry list of statistics to debunk any impression that its products aren't relevant with all age demographics. "We really do think about serving billions of people and are on a playing field that nobody else in the industry is," wrote Frank Shaw, the company's senior communications executive in a blog post.
The Kin's flop adds to a long list of products - from watches to music players - that have plagued Microsoft's consumer division, while its business group has suffered as well through less-than-successful offerings like Windows Vista and Windows for tablet computers.
In particular, the Kin debacle is a reflection of Microsoft's struggle to deliver what the younger generation of technology-obsessed consumers wants. From hand-held products to business software, Microsoft seems behind the times.
Part of its problem may be that its ability to intrigue and attract software developers is also waning, which threatens its ability to steer markets over the long term. When it comes to electronic devices, people writing software have turned their attention to platforms from Apple and Google. Meanwhile, young technology companies today rely on free, open-source business software rather than Microsoft's products, so young students, soon to be looking for jobs, have embraced open-source software as well.
All very true but those sorts of stats usually aren't top of mind when people go shopping for new gadgets and software.
Several years ago, a senior Microsoft exec reprimanded me for suggesting in print that the company's success was due more to its ability to listen to customers and remedy its shortcomings in subsequent product releases. (Usually by the third iteration as was the case with Windows, Windows NT and Internet Explorer.) I thought it was a compliment but my interlocutor wasn't pleased. He took it as an implicit criticism of the company's technology.
In retrospect, maybe it was - although when the operating system was the indispensable centerpiece of client-server computing, that was more than good enough. In a web-centric world, where the buzz is around smartphones and social computing, that only goes so far.
What do you think?
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