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How Long Does Microsoft Get Away with Almost Good Enough?

Some media pundits biggest difference between Apple and Microsoft is the fact that the former is engineering-oriented and the latter is sales-oriented. But such black and white distinctions don’t really apply. How could they? After all, one of the reasons Apple has gotten where it is today is brilliant marketing, but they also have products that, in large part, fulfill the claims made for them.

To get a sense of where Microsoft is, go ahead and do a Google — or even a Bing! — search for benchmarks comparing all the major browsers on the Windows platform. Check the rendering accuracy and performance ratings for Internet Explorer 8, and compare it to Safari 4, Firefox 3.5, the latest Google Chrome app, and, of course, Opera 10.

Be fair now. Look at the reviews from different sources so you’re absolutely certain you have a fair picture of how well they do. Now it’ll be revealed to everyone, and that’s Microsoft’s total inability to have a best-of-breed product!

Indeed, Internet Explorer is, in nearly every case, dead last in terms of the ability to render pages accurately and rapidly. Yet it’s still the number one browser on the planet, and clearly not because of its quality.

Of course, it’s also true that Microsoft dominates the operating system wars, and Internet Explorer is preloaded on Windows PCs. That doesn’t mean PC makers don’t offer alternatives, and in response to an edict from the European Union, folks on that continent will likely have a choice of which default browser they want to install when they set up a new Windows box.

However, Internet Explorer isn’t the only instance where Microsoft builds an inferior product.

Certainly, just about every fair reviewer these days will rate Mac OS X as superior in almost every respect, although you have more options to configure Windows. However, too much of a good thing usually causes endless confusion if you’re not a Windows power user. Few are suggesting that Windows — any version — is more reliable that the Mac OS of any particular era, although the stuff that Apple produced in the mid-1990s was, at the time, correctly described as basically sucking less.

When it comes to digital music players, Microsoft got tired of sitting on the sidelines and watching its PlaysForSure partners lose the ballgame, so they tried to ape Apple and deliver an integrated product, the Zune. However, they again came up with an imitation of the real thing. Not just that, but they tried to ape the real thing of a year or two earlier. It seems as if Microsoft is perennially behind the curve on most of what they produce.

Now it’s fair to say that Microsoft has almost always been that way. The original MS-DOS operating system was something Bill Gates and crew bought from another company, renamed, and licensed to IBM. Yes, when it comes to changing names, Microsoft must be good at it, since they do it so often.

In the early 1980s, few computer experts were suggesting that MS-DOS was far and away superior  to all the rest of the text-based operating systems of the time. I won’t even get into the known similarities between Microsoft’s system and the competition. That was long ago and far away, but this sort of thing has been part and parcel of the company’s DNA since the beginning.

Yes, Microsoft will acquire intellectual property, and they’ll attempt to imitate what’s already available from other companies. They’ll also promise to do better, but seldom manage to get anything more than a pale imitation of the product out the door.

This doesn’t mean that all Microsoft products are necessarily bad. The early reviews indicate, for example, that Windows 7 is way better than its predecessor, the failed Windows Vista. Performance and reliability are evidently improved significantly, and it’s evidently quite a usable system.

But it all comes down to this: Microsoft has never, ever, hit the top of the heap as the result of fair competition, and by delivering a best of breed product. With some 90,000 employees and billions of dollars in spare cash in the bank, you’d think they certainly have the resources to do better. I’m quite sure, in fact, that many of Microsoft’s employees are as smart and innovative as the ones at Apple, but they don’t excel at their tasks because of poor leadership in the executive suites.

This appears to be one of the unfortunate side effects of taking a technology company and making it top-heavy with salespeople. Sure, they know how to sell product, but that doesn’t guarantee excellence.

But it’s not just Microsoft that has suffered from a lack of true innovation because they had the wrong team at the top. Remember the problems Apple encountered when they made a former soft drink executive CEO, and it took them years to live that down, before it nearly destroyed the company.

In Microsoft’s case, few will suggest that they’re going out of business in the foreseeable future. But unless they change their ways soon, there will be a long slow decline. Consider the biggest tech companies of the 1980s, for example. How many of them are still around? I’m just asking.