Microsoft turns 35: Best, worst and most notable moments

An opinionated look back at the good, the bad and the ugly of Microsoft's 35-year history

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Smallest annual revenue

In 1975, its first year in business, Microsoft recorded a total income of $16,005, all from the BASIC program it wrote for the MITS Altair 8800 computer. The total did not include $14,405 that Microsoft was still owed for the final quarter of 1975.

Largest annual revenue

In its 2008 fiscal year, Microsoft raked in $60.42 billion in revenue, a whopping 18% increase over what it had earned the previous year.

Worst year-over-year performance

Microsoft has turned a profit every year since its founding, and it enjoyed year-over-year increases in revenue and profits every year ... until 2009. For its 2009 fiscal year, which ended June 30, 2009, the company reported revenue of $58.44 billion, a 3% decline from fiscal year 2008. Its operating income was $20.36 billion, down 9% from 2008; net income was $14.57 billion, down 18%; and earnings per share was $1.62, down 13%.

Most annoying productivity tool

Clippy the Office Assistant
Clippy was persistently annoying.

In November 1996, Microsoft launched Office 97, which featured the Office Assistant, an animated character in the form of a paper clip nicknamed Clippy. (There were other characters as well, but Clippy was the default and the most annoying.)

The Office Assistant was supposed to help people get work done more easily by popping onto the screen and offering tips from the application's Help system related to the task being performed. It was intrusive, intensely annoying and widely reviled.

Even people within Microsoft hated Clippy. Steven Sinofsky, now president of the Windows and Windows Live Division, wrote this in his blog: "the Office Assistant was famously named TFC during development. The 'C' stood for clown. I will let your active imagination figure out what the TF stood for."

In fact, Microsoft used the widespread hatred of Clippy to its advantage by launching an anti-Clippy Web site as a way to promote Office 97's successor, Office XP, because Office XP had the Office Assistant turned off by default. The site received some 22 million page views, according to USA Today, and allowed users to do things such as shoot rubber bands at the hated animated character.

Best productivity booster

In March 2006, Microsoft released Office 2007, which featured a brand new interface. Gone were the familiar menus and toolbars, replaced by the Ribbon, which put the most commonly used commands on a series of tabbed panels.

Excel 2007's Ribbon interface
Office 2007's Ribbon interface replaced familiar menus and toolbars.

Although some people hate the Ribbon, many users (including some Computerworld editors) find it easier to use than the old interface once they've gotten used to it. Microsoft claims that research shows that the ribbon is a productivity booster -- so much so that the company has decided to incorporate elements of it throughout its entire product line, including the Windows operating system itself.

Most inexplicable advertising campaign

Jerry Seinfeld/Bill Gates ad
The Jerry Seinfeld/Bill Gates ads baffled consumers.

Microsoft has spent untold millions of dollars on advertising through the years, but one campaign stands out above them all for its sheer incomprehensibility -- the series of ads in which the odd couple of Bill Gates and Jerry Seinfeld do mundane things such as search for cheap shoes at a bargain basement discount store and annoy a family for no apparent reason.

Launched in September 2008, these ads were widely criticized in the advertising and tech worlds. They lasted only a brief time; Microsoft was smart enough to can them quickly.

Most effective advertising campaign

Microsoft clearly learned from the Seinfeld ad fiasco, because the company in early 2009 followed that campaign with what may have been its most effective series of ads -- the Laptop Hunter commercials. The ads portrayed attractive, personable young people searching for laptops and buying Windows-based machines because they found them to be more powerful and less expensive than Macs.

Laptop Hunter ad
Lauren opts for a notebook from HP, not Apple, in a Laptop Hunters ad.

The ads hit Apple where it hurt, on price, at a time when the economy was tanking. The image-measuring firm BrandIndex found that the campaign raised Microsoft's ranking of value perception among 18-to-34-year-olds from zero to 46.2 in a few months, while Apple's plummeted from 70 to 12.4 in the same time period. (The highest possible value was 100.)

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