It has been a long time since you could take Microsoft’s promises — or threats — seriously. After they conquered the PC world early on, almost every pronouncement from them was accepted as gospel by the media. Whenever they announced a product or service, they were believed. When those products or services failed to appear — or showed up in a feature-limited form — those lapses were ignored.
Just a single example: When Windows Vista was announced, several features, including a new file system, were demonstrated. When Vista appeared to tepid customer response, those missing features, promised later, were seldom discussed. Does anyone even remember what they were? Or even care?
This week, in a published interview, Steve Ballmer, Microsoft’s loudmouth CEO, vows he’s “not going to leave any space uncovered to Apple.” Yes, I’m sure Tim Cook is even now shaking in his boots.
But such interviews are softball. It’s not that we have a seasoned journalist with the courage to ask Ballmer the hard questions about Microsoft’s inability to fulfill promises about new products. Or would Ballmer just walk out — as Steve Jobs was known to do — if the questioner veered from the script? Indeed, that would make a better story, that Ballmer won’t answer probing questions about Microsoft’s problems.
Now if you actually look at what Ballmer has said through the years, you’d wonder why anyone would pay attention to him. His casual dismissals of Apple’s mobile products are major examples. It’s one thing to say that he believes Microsoft can beat Apple in a market segment, but to just dismiss Apple outright, as he did with the iPhone, makes him just look foolish. Or jealous.
A real interview with Ballmer, if he had the guts to allow it, would deal in-depth with Microsoft’s problems moving past Windows and Office. Yes, the Xbox is successful now, but how many years will it take for Microsoft to earn back the billions squandered in developing and marketing a gaming console? Will it ever happen, or will gaming consoles be passé before something of that sort ever happens.
You can also see where Microsoft is responding to Apple, rather than innovating. So Mountain Lion is $19.99, and the upgrade to Windows 8 Pro will be double that price. Certainly it’s probably not fair to compare two unreleased products, and even though a Golden Master seed of Mountain Lion has been made available to developers, it’s not available for regular Mac users to buy and download. A GM seed could get be updated before the OS actually goes on sale. However, it’s fair to say that developers have given Mountain Lion positive buzz. Windows 8 has received a surprising amount of skepticism even from media pundits whom you’d think were favorably disposed towards Microsoft.
At least with Mountain Lion, you will be able to upgrade and find that most things work the same as they do in Lion and Snow Leopard. There are some iOS-inspired changes, but some can be reverted to the way they worked in older OS X versions, and the other changes do not require complete retraining, or even slight retraining. Windows 8, however, changes things for no discernible reason, and it’s clear to me that enterprise customers will avoid it like the plague. Why should a business be forced to submit to substantial employee retraining costs at the whim of Microsoft?
Indeed, why isn’t anyone asking how Microsoft expects businesses to embrace Windows 8 now or ever? These days, companies have a hard enough time dealing with mounting operating costs, and earning enough money to keep all or most of their employees on the job. If Windows XP or Windows 7 work well, where’s the incentive to upgrade? That it’s cheaper?
When it comes to the supposedly forthcoming Surface tablet, Microsoft can’t see the forest from the trees. They still believe in Windows everywhere, meaning desktop Windows and mobile Windows must forever look and work the same. The keyboard on the Surface’s inside cover is laid out in a traditional Windows note-book fashion, including a touchpad. What about just using the Surface’s touch keyboard instead? Well, one reporter who tried, before the prototype was taken away by Microsoft’s PR crew, said the touch response was ragged. That doesn’t auger well for hardware that’s a mere three months from release. But since Microsoft has yet to seed reporters with hardware that is supposed to be in close to shipping condition, how can you know? They didn’t ask Ballmer about that either.
However, it may well be that Ballmer, in a sly fashion, has admitted the Surface may be less than real. He is quoted as saying: “Surface is just a design point. It will have a distinct place in what’s a broad Windows ecosystem. And the importance of the thousands of partners that we have that design and produce Windows computers will not diminish.” Maybe it was meant as a wakeup call for Microsoft’s OEMs to deliver better Windows 8 tablets; existing prototypes have been pathetic, to put it mildly.
Or maybe Ballmer felt the pressure from OEMs who are feeling betrayed, once again. In other words, the Surface may not be another Zune at all. It may be nothing more than a concept that will never see the light of day.
When it comes to Bing, and all the billions Microsoft has thrown away trying to become relevant in search, how does Ballmer make excuses for wasting over six billion dollars buying an online ad company and not being able to make it work? Google managed with a company they acquired for half that price? Does that mean that Google has better negotiators than Microsoft, and has a better sense of how to integrate a newly acquired company?
Now I’m not necessarily a fan of Google, but I keep looking for reasons to switch to Bing, and I can’t find any. These are truths that Ballmer may never be able to face. I still wonder why Microsoft’s board hasn’t sent him off to the retirement home.