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Frankly Speaking: Microsoft's woes are like IBM's of old

By Frank Hayes
April 21, 2008 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Gartner says Windows is "collapsing." Well, sure. Strictly speaking, Windows itself isn't in a state of collapse -- Windows XP is still useful to a huge population of customers. But for Vista and the Windows franchise as a whole, things do not look good.

By coincidence, 15 years ago this month, Lou Gerstner arrived at IBM.

When he got there, Gerstner found a company that literally didn't believe in its own future. The mainframe business -- the core of IBM -- was collapsing. Other business units were busy trying to turn themselves into stand-alone companies that could be spun off. The big blue ship was sinking, and everyone wanted off.

Gerstner turned it around. The specific tactics are interesting: a shift to services as the primary business, a deep dive into the Internet and Linux, and a vow that IBM would no longer try to lock customers in. Mostly, though, those tactics were incidental.

What mattered was this: Gerstner led IBM to change. He had to. He understood that IBM's old way of doing business just wouldn't work any longer. With a plummeting stock price and 100,000 laid off, change was the only option.

And it worked.

Now consider Microsoft. For years, the cliché has been that Redmond is the new Armonk. And just as IBM faced disintegration when the mainframe business collapsed, Microsoft faces disintegration if Windows collapses.

But the parallel runs deeper. Far too much of Microsoft simply doesn't believe in its future.

The future is change. That's what makes it different from the now. But Windows is in trouble -- and Microsoft is at risk -- specifically because Microsoft won't change.

Microsoft's product design philosophy is still "ever bigger, ever more bloated." That worked when Moore's Law made CPUs and memory ever faster. But now the market opportunities are in phones, games and low-end laptops. Bigger isn't better -- and Microsoft isn't changing.

Microsoft's software development approach -- nightly builds and daily bug fixes for years on end -- has been broken for a long time. It just won't scale for a code base as huge as that of Windows. There are other ways to do it -- but Microsoft isn't changing.

Here's the worst part: Microsoft's approach to customers has always been old-school IBM: Lock 'em in. But the first rule of lock-in is this: Never break your customers' software. And the second rule is this: Never force a product on customers that breaks their software when the previous version still works fine.

Vista breaks applications. It breaks device drivers. It breaks the strongest reasons for customers to stay with Microsoft. It actually threatens to break Microsoft's customer lock-in.



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