Has Microsoft Become a Qwerty Business?

Last Updated May 21, 2010 11:44 AM EDT

The layout of your keyboard is famously irrational: q-w-e-r-t-y-u-i-o-p at the top. The layout was designed in 1874 for mechanical typewriters to minimise typebar clashes. In other words, it was designed to slow typists down, not to speed them up. Typebars have disappeared, but we still have a layout which is chronically inefficient and designed to slow us down to the era of the horse and cart.

Qwerty is a classic example of the network effect: once a standard is established, it becomes very hard to shift. Another classic example is standard gauge for railways. The wholly illogical standard gauge is 1435mm, which George Stephenson developed, based largely on the gauge of tracks used by pit ponies in the mines. This is not a great basis on which to develop high speed trains today, especially when broad gauge (developed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel) was clearly superior from an engineering point of view. But once the standard was set, it became more or less impossible to shift, and even Brunel's Great Western Railway had to change to standard gauge eventually.

Microsoft is in the privileged position of having set the standard for desktop operating systems. It may now be as useless as the Qwerty keyboard, or as logical as standard gauge railways, but there is little to stop its dominance.
I discovered this to my cost when I changed from XP to Windows 7. Total nightmare. The new busy which Microsoft touts in my case means busy waiting for clunky software to work; hotmail is snailmail with added spam on the side; Outlook is an expensive extra; there is highly intrusive digital rights management and the software makes me fill in passwords every time I touch the keyboard; the whole layout is counter intuitive and it is a lousy and expensive user experience for me.

At the same time I bought an Ubuntu Linux netbook: all the software is as good as Microsoft and is free. It should be a no brainer as to which system succeeds.

I also bought an Android phone; it all works quickly and intuitively and even a techno-klutz like myself can quickly make the most of it. And it sends and receives email far faster than Microsoft. No wonder Android outsells Microsoft on mobile phones: where Microsoft does not have a Qwerty advantage it does not win.

In the meantime, lots of Microsoft executives will whizz around the world business class discussing segmentation plans, strategic human capital policies and how to transform their paradigms. It is utterly pointless. They can sit at home and do nothing: if they produce rubbish software and operating systems with minimal service or support and no one will notice the difference. They win not because of management talent, but because they are living off a legacy from the past.

Having a pop at Microsoft is easy. But it also raises an uncomfortable question. How many of us are Qwerty managers, living on past successes and not moving forward? We can survive for a long time that way. But when the revolution comes, our downfall will be brutal. Ultimately, we all must adapt.

(Pic: Scintt cc2.0)

  • Jo Owen

    Jo Owen practises what he preaches as a leader. He has worked with over 100 of the best, and a couple of the worst, organisations in the world, has built a business in Japan; started a bank (now HBOS business banking); was a partner at Accenture and brand manager at P&G. He is a serial entrepreneur whose start-ups include top 10 graduate recruiter Teach First and Start Up, which has helped over 250 ex-offenders start their own businesses. He has and has spent seven years researching leadership, strategy and organisation in tribal societies. His books include "Tribal Business School", "How to Lead and How to Manage." He is in demand as a speaker and coach on leadership and change. His websites include Tribal Business School and Leadership Partnership