So I read a recent message to Microsoft employees from CEO Satya Nadella, in which he attempts, once again, to explain his plans to reform the company. I won't quote any of the estimated 3,100-odd words here, because they frankly do not make any sense. Using fancy buzzwords the only message Nadella manages to convey, more or less, is that it's mostly about productivity.
Yes, I can see the TV ads now? Buy a Surface 3 and become more productive! Sure, that'll sell a ton of those awkward notebook/tablet/whatevers. But it's no better than the current ads that tout the presence of Skype and Office. Of course Skype is available on multiple devices on multiple platforms, and even Mac and iPad users can get perfectly good versions of Office. So what makes the Surface 3 unique? A kickstand? A higher price than a comparable MacBook Air?
Indeed, I see that other members of the tech media are already taking Microsoft to task for failing to present a cogent vision for the future. At least Microsoft had a game plan in the early days, which was to put Windows everywhere and make a ton of money. That was sufficient to make for a compelling sound bite. But when the industry changed, and people embraced multiple devices including smartphones and tablets, Microsoft's strategy stumbled.
Even Windows 8 stumbled, but not necessarily because it was the even-numbered version, although I did mention that telling fact in a previous commentary. It stumbled because it was badly designed, with a schizophrenic focus that confused customers.
Indeed, The Mac Observer's John Martellaro, a regular guest on The Tech Night Owl LIVE, tells of the time he encountered a family at a Staples store trying to return an Surface RT tablet. The reason? Well, it wouldn't run regular Windows apps. All of Microsoft's fancy pronouncements failed to properly explain to customers the difference between the ARM and Intel versions of the Surface, and the limitations of the former. I wouldn't presume to guess how many customers bought a Surface RT because it was relatively inexpensive, only to find that it didn't do what they expected it to do. And whose fault was that?
While Nadella was being praised as the right person to take over Microsoft, a real nerd in the spirit of Bill Gates, it's clear he's so hung up on technicalities that he doesn't grasp the needs of Microsoft's customers, and why the company's products fail to elicit an emotional connection with most users.
So people might love their iPhone or their new car, but a Windows PC? Well, there are some people who do love Windows, but most simply tolerate it in the same way they tolerate a screwdriver or a wrench as tools with which to accomplish work. And work isn't supposed to be fun.
Now I do not expect Microsoft to fire Nadella because he cannot enunciate a workable plan to improve the company's prospects. At the very least, he'll be given a few quarters to demonstrate that things are changing, perhaps until after Windows 9 ships. If Windows 9 helps Microsoft recover at least some of the negative perceptions and lost sales of Windows 8, maybe that will be sufficient for Nadella to keep his job.
Then again, they didn't fire Steve Ballmer as the result of his failures. So long as the company reported good sales and profits, he held on to his position. But the best vision he could present was "developers, developers, developers!" Well, at least it was short and succinct, but no better than Nadella's more expansive but no more informative description of what the company is supposed to be all about.
Maybe he should have said, "we're here to make as much money as possible, and we'll figure out how as we go along." Would that be sufficient to present a marketing game plan? Well, maybe it would be the truth for a lot of companies, but one might have expected more of Microsoft considering its long history as a tech giant.
I also wonder about Microsoft employees, wondering what direction the company might take with new leadership, and reading a bunch of drivel that has little relationship to the real world and the problems the company confronts. Are they disappointed, or just suck it up since they still have jobs?
In saying that, however, it's widely expected that a fair portion of the employees who joined Microsoft as a result of the acquisition of Nokia's handset division will be given pink slips soon. I've heard 10,000 out of the 25,000 who were part of the deal. But nothing is certain, and maybe it'll be less. But that is usually the plight of a company that's newly acquired. So-called redundant positions are eliminated for operating efficiency or whatever they care to call it.
Meantime, I hope that, in seeking a new direction for Microsoft, Nadella will find a way to express a vision in a way that makes sense. So far, he hasn't.
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