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Microsoft: The Definition of Insanity?

One definition of insanity is constantly doing the same thing, and expecting a different result. While I might be a little presumptuous in suggesting that Microsoft — or its leadership — could be considered insane, you have to wonder about some of the company’s questionable marketing decisions.

Take the Zune music player. Microsoft double-crosses their PlaysForSure partners, builds their own custom music ecosystem to mimic Apple’s iTunes, and releases their own branded line of music players. The first one failed, the second one failed, and it kept failing for several years until Microsoft had the good sense to pull the plug.

The same can’t be said about search. Whether it’s Windows Live Search, Bing, or whatever you want to call it, Microsoft has invested a boatload of money into attempting to beat Google at their own game. Microsoft even cut a deal with Yahoo! to replace their venerable search engine with Bing.

So how’s this scheme working? Funny you should ask. You see, it appears that, in large part, Google’s market share is fairly constant within a narrow range, getting roughly two thirds of search requests. Predictably, Bing has cannibalized Yahoo!’s search, if only because the latter isn’t promoting that capability. Microsoft’s pathetic commercials and product placement tie-ins don’t appear to help, since I doubt most viewers would care if someone on their favorite TV show uses Bing to look for something.

It’s easy to say you want to “Google” something, but not so easy to say “Bing” something. In fact, it almost sounds vulgar. Bing you!

But no matter: Microsoft will continue to pump billions of dollars into search, hoping against hope that there will be a light at the end of the tunnel.

The most notorious example of repeating oneself, however, is tablets. We have a decade of promises from Microsoft that we the year in question happens to be the year of the tablet. To Microsoft, a tablet is basically a PC running Windows with a display that supports touch. Year after year, this “amazing” invention was touted as the next great thing, but customers were wanting. Yes, PC tablets made their way into some vertical markets, such as medical offices, but that’s about it. The public didn’t care.

That explains why so much skepticism surrounded the introduction of the iPad in the spring of 2010. Tablets failed. Tablets would never catch on, so what business did Apple have in building one? Besides, didn’t it strike you as nothing more than an iPod touch with a weight problem?

It doesn’t matter that Apple continues to struggle to this very day to meet demand. It doesn’t matter that the competitors have come and gone, and there are already hefty discounts on such wannabes as the Motorola Xoom. The skeptics say that Apple must some day fail.

So far as Microsoft is concerned, it doesn’t appear they even plan to try to compete. A Microsoft executive in charge of Windows Phone, Andy Lees, states: “We view a tablet as a PC.”

In other words, a tablet must run Windows, and must be able to use the regular versions of Office and other apps. It has to be indistinguishable from a regular PC, except for the touchscreen, and Microsoft is adding a bunch of touch gestures to Windows 8, which is due some time in 2012.

Now if you go through all of Microsoft’s statements about tablets from the very first day, you’ll see pretty much the same failed logic. A tablet is a PC and, says Lees, customers “want people to be able to do the sort of things they do on a PC on a tablet.”

Clearly Lees needs a reality check. If customers really wanted a tablet to be essentially a tricked out PC with a touchscreen, why is it that they ignored every attempt by Microsoft’s OEM partners to build one? Why were those tablets confined to a small number of business customers? What am I missing here?

So Microsoft’s vision for tablets in 2012 hasn’t changed one bit, other than supporting hardware containing ARM processors, similar to the ones used by mobile handset makers. The only notable difference is letting your fingers rather than a stylus do the walking for you. Sure, Windows 8 will inherent some of the look and feel of the failed Windows Phone 7, if that makes sense to you.

To sum up, Microsoft wants you to believe that their failed vision, repeated year after year, will miraculously achieve a different result next year. Talk about having blinders on.

Now this isn’t to say that Windows 8 will be a bad OS. The early demonstrations appear promising, and offering at least a slight integration between the mobile and desktop interfaces won’t hurt. Apple is certainly integrating a decent number of iOS features in Lion, and that ought to be reason for Microsoft to want to do the same thing.

But when it comes to tablets, Microsoft hasn’t learned the expensive lessons of history. No doubt if it doesn’t happen in Windows 8, there’s always Windows 9.