Scot Finnie: Can Microsoft make a comeback after Ballmer?

Microsoft was born at the beginning of the PC revolution, which was all about empowering individuals through easy access to computing power. It emerged victorious.

Today, the mobile revolution is all about empowering a broad swath of businesspeople to work wherever and whenever they want and to smoothly interleave business and personal pursuits. No victory laurels for Microsoft this time. Why has it been unable to shift gears to take advantage of this second tech revolution?

Microsoft started out intensely focused on users. The antitrust prosecution of the late '90s was a turning point. By the time the company and the Justice Department reached a settlement in November 2001, a shift had occurred. Microsoft stopped listening to customers and began trying to dictate to the market. It became obsessed with anti-piracy protection, not caring that it was creating a negative user experience for some of its paying customers. The siege mentality with which Microsoft approached the trial began to permeate its dealings with customers and third parties.

Not surprisingly, dictating to the market didn't work. Windows ME, Windows Mobile, Tablet PC, Windows Phone, Zune, Windows Vista, Windows 8 and Surface Pro have all been failures in one way or another. The thing that has been lacking at Microsoft for about 15 years is vision. Its Zune music player arrived five years after the iPod. Its Surface Pro came some three years after the iPad. Microsoft began work on a mobile platform almost 15 years ago, so it wasn't late there. It just had no idea what the market wanted. And it has poured lots of good money after bad chasing Internet search business.

Most of that decade and a half has been the Steve Ballmer era. And Ballmer, who became CEO in 2000, was, for many people, the poster child of Microsoft's failures, exemplified by his decision in 2010 -- the same year Apple launched the iPad -- to pull the plug on the in-development Microsoft Courier tablet. Beginning with Pocket PC right on through Windows 8, Microsoft has failed time and again trying to get its mobile platform right. And mobile isn't the only area that Microsoft has had trouble with under Ballmer.

Perhaps the worst example of blurry vision was Windows 8. A one-size-fits-all OS for mobile and desktop devices was a colossally bad concept. The hallmark of Ballmer's tenure is that Microsoft has been tone-deaf to the market.

Ballmer's departure is long overdue. But things may get worse for the company before they get better. Microsoft needs to reset its institutional identity. It has always played hardball, but it used to be a much smarter company -- one that listened to criticism and learned from it. One that was determined to innovate. To do that, you have to be willing to revise your products and take bold steps before your competitors lock things up. True innovation is usually a grass-roots effort. Microsoft's new CEO needs to create a culture that encourages employees to voice ideas.

With Ballmer leaving, Microsoft has an opportunity to remake itself, to refocus on core competencies and to re-evaluate its product road map. During Ballmer's era, server applications have been a high point, with products like SharePoint, Exchange and Azure, so perhaps Microsoft should focus there. But we live in a world where IT is turned on its head, where end users are dictating and IT is scrambling to deliver. Now, more than ever, Microsoft needs to succeed with consumers and business end users.

Scot Finnie is Computerworld's editor in chief. You can contact him at sfinnie@computerworld.com and follow him on Twitter (@ScotFinnie).

Related reading: Preston Gralla knows who shouldn't run Microsoft. See "Why Ford's CEO Is Wrong for Microsoft."

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