For about a decade, Microsoft botched so many major technology trends that the company became a punch line. But Microsoft more than survived its epic mistakes. Today it is (again) one of the superstars in the tech world.
Microsoft’s ability to thrive when almost everything has been done wrong could be an encouraging saga of business reinvention. Or it can be a terrifying demonstration of how difficult it is to kill monopolies. Or maybe it’s a bit of both.
Understanding Microsoft’s stamina is relevant when considering an important current question: Are today’s big tech superstars successful and popular because they are the best in their field or because they become so powerful that they are driven by past successes? can tie in?
Ultimately, the 2021 big tech fear – the antitrust lawsuits, the proposed new laws, and the clamor – boils down to a debate about whether the hallmark of our digital lives is a dynamic that drives progress, or whether we actually have dynasties. And what I’m asking is which one was Microsoft?
Let me go back to Microsoft’s dark days, which arguably stretched from the mid-2000s to 2014. Oddly enough, they weren’t that bad. Yes, Microsoft was so uncool that the company was toasted in Apple TV commercials and a lot of people in tech didn’t want anything to do with it. The company failed to develop a popular search engine, tried unsuccessfully to compete with Google in digital advertising, and had little success selling its own Smartphone operating systems or equipment.
And yet, even in its saddest years at Microsoft, the company made tons of money. In 2013, the year Steve Ballmer was half under pressure retire as CEO, the company made far more profit before taxes and some other expenses – more than $ 27 billion – than Amazon did in 2020.
No matter how much Microsoft’s software stunk – and much of it did – many companies still had to buy Windows computers, Microsoft’s email and document software, and their technology to run powerful back-end computers called servers . Microsoft used these much-needed products to leverage new and profitable businesses, including software that replaced traditional phone systems, databases, and file storage systems.
Microsoft wasn’t always good during those years, but it went pretty well. And more recently, Microsoft has shifted from the water treadmill to a financially successful and relevant in cutting edge technology. So was this turnaround a healthy sign or a daunting one?
On the sane side of the ledger, Microsoft At least one big thing done right: cloud computing, which is one of the most important technologies of the last 15 years. This and a change in culture were the basis for Microsoft’s success despite its strategy and products. This is the kind of turnaround we should want.
I’ll also say that Microsoft differs from its big tech peers in a way that might have made it more resilient. Corporations, not individuals, are Microsoft customers and technologies that are sold to organizations doesn’t have to be good to win.
And now the disheartening explanation: what if Microsoft makes the lesson that a fading star can use its size, clever marketing, and customers to stay successful even if it makes multiple products, grabbing hold of new technology loses and is plagued by limp bureaucracy? Was Microsoft so big and powerful that it was invincible, at least long enough to invent its next act? And are today’s Facebook or Google comparable to a Microsoft from 2013 – so firmly rooted that they can be successful even if they are not the best?
I don’t have definitive answers, and size and power don’t guarantee a company can tolerate many mistakes and remain relevant. But much of the drama and technology battles in 2021 will depend on these questions. Maybe Google search, Amazon shopping, and Facebook’s ads are amazing. Or maybe we just can’t think of better alternatives because powerful companies don’t have to be great to keep winning.
Before we go …
Small format online chaos campaigns: My colleague Sheera Frenkel has a wild story about Iranian agents posing as Israelis to post divisive messages in small online groups on messaging apps like WhatsApp and Telegram. Targeting small groups allowed agents to cause trouble in trusting communities and was a way to avoid being spotted by tech companies looking for massive amounts of online disinformation.
Video games without fancy computers: Kellen Browning examines the efforts of companies like Google and Microsoft to move video games from playing on specialized hardware be remotely accessible via the web. The technology isn’t quite there yet, but cloud gaming could allow people to play any game on any device, and it could be the beginning of the end for apps.
Tweet forever: An automated account in Indonesia turns people’s tweets into maps with locations and real-time information about floods, earthquakes, and other hazards, rest of the world Reports. The bot called PetaBencana is also working with the Indonesian authorities to help them respond more quickly to disasters.
You want to see these pictures of koalas that were photographed in the middle of a jump. They are graceful little fluff balls.