Microsoft: Drowning in a Sea of Partners

As I type these words on my Macbook Pro, there is an iPhone 4 in my pocket and an iPad 2 propped up on its Smart Cover in front of me. If you had told me a couple of years ago that I would be using three Apple devices at the same time, I would have laughed at you. (In a nice way; I don’t like hurting anyone’s feelings.) So I couldn’t help but ask myself recently: what happened? Why have I turned to Apple when, traditionally, Microsoft has been the one to satisfy my geeky gadget needs?

The answer doesn’t lie with Microsoft alone. Microsoft is predominantly a software company. They write
the OS, the productivity software, the games, or the utilities that run on your device. They provide a solid platform that anyone can use in any capacity that they desire. This is something that has always appealed to me: if you want something in a small form factor, then you can build it that way — and you can be sure that the OS of your choice will run on it.

But what happens when your beautiful software gets put on ugly, underperforming hardware?

More often than not, it seems like the companies who build the hardware to run Microsoft’s software — Dell, HP, Samsung, LG – don’t do a very good job. Microsoft sees the threats from Linux and OSX and does an acceptable job of meeting that threat, but these hardware companies seem to chug along, releasing uninteresting, lackluster hardware that doesn’t seem to compete with anything but themselves. And then there are partners like AT&T who take their time testing a minor update to Windows Phone, upsetting a lot of loyal customers as it gets delayed again and again. With partners like that, who needs competition?

Of course, Microsoft isn’t the helpless victim in all this, either. Lackluster hardware or delayed updates wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if the software was compelling. As it stands today, though, Microsoft is finding themselves playing catch-up. The only market where they are truly leading is in gaming — and even then, Sony is quickly making up for lost time. Don’t get me wrong, Microsoft has some innovative technology. Kinect, Previous Versions (a geekier version of Apple’s Time Machine that existed before Apple’s Time Machine), Zune Pass, the Metro UI — this is all great stuff. But championing Microsoft’s successes is frustrating – it’s as if you’re their unpaid advertising agency. Why can’t Microsoft get people excited about their own software? Even worse, why is it up to fans of the product to spread the word? Word of mouth is certainly an effective advertising technique, but at some point the company has to take the reigns and hit it out of the park.

Instead we get cringe-inducing garbage like "To the Cloud" that doesn’t say anything, and just confuses the public about what is actually going on in the technology industry.

To be clear, I don’t like Apple’s strategy of controlling both the software and the hardware, either. While all technology is subject to problems, being in charge of both the software and the hardware lets you anticipate some of the biggest issues, and resolve them before they reach the consumer’s hands. But it also limits choice. If you want 32GB of additional storage, you can no longer add an expansion card — you have to wait for the company to change both the hardware and the software to accommodate you.

But Microsoft’s partner strategy is clearly not working. I’m not sure what the solution is – but I can give my firsthand experiences that inspired this post into existence:

* It all started with the purchase of an iPhone 3GS two years ago. At the time, Windows Phone was merely a dream, and Android was still too new to be a viable mobile OS. The iPhone was the smartphone to have if you wanted a smartphone, and the only reason I had waited as long as I did was because I needed 32GB of storage. Even today, there is no denying the influence the iPhone has had on the industry. Apple hasn’t released anything since that has been quite so revolutionary – but in some ways, they haven’t needed to, because it all builds atop the core experience established by the iPhone.

* The reality of the situation really started to become clear when I was looking for a new laptop last year. I didn’t necessarily want a Macbook Pro, but the allure of learning more about iPhone development, as well as being able to run Windows, were both powerful selling points. The problem was that they were expensive laptops. So, I started to shop around for a Windows-only alternative that was just as powerful, but cheaper. What I found was a little surprising – in order to get a laptop of similar horsepower to the Macbook Pro, I had to spend almost as much money, and even then I was getting a machine that wasn’t nearly as slim or lightweight. And to make matters worse, there wasn’t much variation between manufacturers. Sony was the clear winner with the VAIO line, but they were also the most expensive. Where was that supposed benefit of choice in Microsoft’s partner ecosystem?

* The iPad confused me. It was the tablet everyone was hankering for, but instead of running the OS everyone wanted – OS X – it ran the lightweight, less capable iOS. But what it lacked in core OS function, it made up for in spades with apps. The selection was light at first, obviously, but as time passed, people started to learn how to take advantage of the tablet’s increased screen real estate. There are now some truly compelling ways to use the device, although the price point is a bit high if you want more than a scant 16GB of storage. When the iPad 2 was released, it was clear that this was the most well-established tablet, especially if you already had connections with iOS via the iPhone. There aren’t any other tablets that come close to the polish of the iPad, and Microsoft doesn’t even have any announced plans for one. Even worse, they refuse to consider Windows Phone OS as a tablet OS. It seems they would rather run the full Windows OS on it. While it remains to be seen how, exactly, Microsoft plans to implement that, it worries me. After using the iPad for a while, I can see why Apple went with iOS instead of OS X. There are times you miss the functionality of a full desktop OS, but most of the time it is perfect as is, simply because it was designed from the ground up with touch navigation and interaction in mind.

When Microsoft finally reveals their iPad-like tablets, it is going to be their software running on partner hardware. Will the hardware be as thin, lightweight and tight as the iPad? Will their partners stray from the reference designs, once again screwing up Microsoft’s plans for firmware updates? If this is the path Microsoft continues to walk, it makes me lose faith in them. There are strengths in this way of doing business, but there are also many weaknesses – and Microsoft doesn’t seem to be willing or able to correct them.

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