The Future According to Microsoft

The BrainYard - Where collaborative minds congregate.

Venkatesh Rao, Contributor

January 21, 2009

14 Min Read

Two quotes immediately flashed across my mind as I started reading Listening to the Future by Dan Rasmus, a key soothsayer at Microsoft, and Rob Salkowitz, a free ranger in the Microsoft ecosystem who occasionally wanders further afield. The first is a Kant quote: we see not what is, but who we are. The second is due to Alan Kay, a big name in the hoary past of my employer, Xerox: the easiest way to predict the future is to invent it. Looking out and ahead at the future is as much a synthetic and introspective act as it is a predictive act, even if you don't explicitly set out to introspect or synthesize. Microsoft's visions of the future merit some belief simply because the vast energies of that 600 lb gorilla, channeled by those visions, might be sufficient to bring them about. Goliaths win more often than we suspect, because Goliath beating David doesn't make the news. For you and me, this book is vastly more interesting for what it reveals about the strategic culture at Microsoft than for what it reveals about the future (which is interesting enough in its own right though). If Rasmus' views are representative, and I believe they are, here's the radar with which Microsoft is operating (this is a rough copy of a figure in the book):

Microsoft Visions

I'll explain the picture in a minute, but an editorial note is in order. The governing paradigm of the book might be called Scenario Planning 2.0. If strategic cultures were cars, this would be a PT Cruiser. Scenario planning is an approach to imagining the future that relies on specific background narratives; grand What-Ifs against which your foreground ideas can be war-gamed. To get at their big what-ifs, Rasmus and Salkowitz looked at the bewildering variety of variables that people think (or panic or daydream) about -- aging Baby Boomers, green issues, terrorism, peak oil -- and pick out two: globalization and workforce democratization, to serve as the key ones. Each of these two variables is used to create a dichotomy axis that separates out mutually-exclusive futures. The result is the 4 quadrant picture of mutually exclusive types of futures pictured above. Here are these four scenarios:

  • Proud Tower: Globalization succeeds, the workforce organizes itself into hierarchical, vertically-integrated global mega-organizations, created by increasingly integrative M&A activities, and populated by Organization Man 2.0.

  • Continental Drift: Globalization fails, the workforce organizes itself in large, intra-national corporations whose agendas are subservient to national agendas

  • Frontier Friction: Globalization fails, the workforce organizes itself into anarchic, non-hierarchical and fluid forms

  • Freelance Planet: This assumes more and more people will become wholly or partially free agents and organize themselves outside of corporations. This is the scenario that drives most of my thinking, for example in my cloudworker series of articles.

As the authors note, scenario planning was developed in a the 70s at Royal Dutch Shell. It fell out of favor for a reason: the world became much more uncertain in the 80s and 90s, too full of unpredictable Black Swan disruptions. Conditions that favored reactive and opportunistic strategic cultures. It says a lot that this approach to thinking is seeing a revival at Microsoft, and I think it will work for them because of their unique strengths, but not for everyone.Rasmus' research group evaluates technology and business ideas against these futures, for relevance and business value, and most importantly, robustness. The premise is that if an idea seems to hold up against the hypothetical forces these four scenarios might unleash, then it is probably worth investing in. The authors explain this approach with the colorful metaphor of wind-tunnel testing: good ideas will survive these 4 wind tunnels. The sorts of ideas they are interested in are mostly obvious: contextual collaboration, the evolution of devices, interfaces and user experiences, machine learning and so forth. But most of the book is not actually devoted to how Microsoft uses the models, but how others might apply it. After the model is introduced in Chapter 1, the remaining 8 chapters, with titles like "managing a dynamic business" and "prospering in a blended world" apply the framework to a variety of questions, some at the C-suite strategy level, and some at the level of middle-management operational issues.And this is what I mean by the idea that envisioning the future is a synthetic act: imagine the full force of Microsoft messaging, informed by these models, helping frame discourses at customer enterprises. I've had the pleasure of listening to Dan Rasmus speak as a guest at our company. Trust me, you pay attention, not just because Dan is an excellent speaker, but because the force of Microsoft behind the thinking is palpable. To the extent that Microsoft's enterprise customers pay attention to messages and advice informed by this framing, they will be more likely to help create the futures foregrounded by Microsoft's vision. They might even be more likely, like subjects of a conjurer's card tricks, to pick the future Microsoft itself is most comfortable navigating. As the Pharoah said in the Ten Commandments, so it shall be written, so it shall be done.Not that this is a bad thing: we are all selling and thereby helping actualize our individual and corporate visions all over the place. But I won't spend much time (actually, any time) discussing the details of the book in Chapters 2 to 9. All I'll say is that the book is worth the read and is thoughtfully written and organized. If Microsoft looms large in your world, you'd better get this book and develop an appreciation for the Big M's thinking.I am going to spend the rest of this post in a vastly more fun exercise in pure speculation: psychoanalyzing Microsoft itself using this book as my lens.Listening to Microsoft Listening to the FutureThere are several interesting points about the diagram. Here are the thoughts that occurred to me, inspired by the Kant and Kay quotes I opened with. Keep in mind that the authors themselves present rational justifications where I see evidence of Microsoft culture.

  • The Top-Right Quadrant Effect: When you make up quadrant diagrams, how you orient axes, and in particular what you put in the psychologically critical upper right corner is often revealing. For pretty much the entire Web 2.0 world, and certainly for companies like Google and Facebook, Freelance Planet would have been in the top right. European, Chinese and Indian companies might want to see Continental Drift in the upper right. For Microsoft, I strongly suspect that an enterprise-heavy globalized world is front and center, despite the authors' protests that their work is scenario agnostic. This isn't really a confirmation bias: it makes sense to play to your strengths and prepare for success. It would be dumb of Microsoft not to subconsciously pay the most attention to Proud Tower. That's the scenario they are positioned to profit from the most.

  • Pragmatism, not Religion: The second interesting point about this framing is that it has four quadrants, not one grand vision. It confirms what we all knew: Microsoft is intensely pragmatic. You will not find don't be evil type exhortations at Microsoft simply because they don't operate by religious doctrines the way Google seems to. They are as willing to look at scenarios they like as ones they don't like. More religious companies like Apple and Google, as well as open source movements, operate by one overarching storyline for the future, one that results from religious values like don't be evil or design above all or information wants to be free. In their monomyths, the "good" scenarios ought to eventually prevail. Being able to think around 4 distinct classes of futures (even if they prefer one) is both a strength and a weakness: the strength is that Microsoft is often the player in the IT economy with the clearest view of reality, with the greatest survivability and tactical maneuverability. The weakness is that Microsoft never burns bridges; never commits with wholehearted religious fervor in just one direction. Even big moves like .NET often lack the clear conceptual integrity that comes from religion-inspired design. This means, despite the awesome power of the company, that the inherently hedging-driven strategic culture will never make a totally new future happen by sheer force of corporate will and vision. Simply put, Microsoft lacks the mindset to put all eggs in one basket or bet the farm.

  • The Ruling Dichotomies: To paraphrase George Box, all dichotomies are wrong, some dichotomies are useful. You could critique the framing very easily (I can think of ways you can have both mega corporations and free-agent workforces or neither globalization or regionalism), but metaphysical cleverness is not the point. Though there is some justification presented for the dichotomies chosen, it is clear that Microsoft's DNA led to the bubbling up of these 2 variables. Assessing all variables purely objectively, as say the CIA might do, in terms of magnitude of trends, might have led to a different top pair (maybe Water Wars and Peak Oil). Assessing all variables purely subjectively, in value-driven ways, would have surfaced variables that reflect governing ethical concerns (like Green and AIDS, say). Globalization and Free Agency bubbled up for Microsoft. This tells you they are primarily objective, but interested in what might impact them the most. There is no visible influence of powerful governing values in what they foreground. That is both the triumph and the tragedy of Microsoft: never viewing the world through the lens of an ideology means never being a victim of large-scale wishful thinking, but also never being the one to lead the charge in moral victories.

  • All Background, No Foreground: Scenario planning is a form of incomplete story-telling. Full stories don't just have backgrounds; they have plot lines, characters, and strong commitments to some futures. Most big companies have romantic origin myths, a sense of purpose, and a sense of uniqueness behind their identities (usually the extension of archetypes derived from the personalities of founding figures). One of the most powerful strengths of Microsoft is a distinct lack of romanticism in their self-identity, and only a very weak sense of "manifest destiny." I can see a distinct Apple or Google or GNU "type" of person, but have never seen a detectable Microsoft "type" among the Microsoft people I know. Aside from a unifying pragmatism and skepticism, I find the Microsoft people I meet to be a very diverse lot. By contrast, you can often tell an Apple person a mile away. The Microsoft origin myth does not extrapolate powerfully into the future the way Google's or Apple's does. Again, a strength and a weakness. Big stories, with influential archetypes modeling governing values, can cause very powerful scripts to be successfully enacted. Equally, huge failures can result, since big foreground stories can lead to big background blind spots. Microsoft's lack of a story foreground, and over-development of multiple conflicting backgrounds tells you that they are unlikely to win or lose big in the future.

  • Listening to rather than Talking out the Future: Even the most faithful Microsoft fan would not accuse the company of being a classical technology innovator. Applying Kay's easier to invent the future quote, Microsoft participates in inventing the future by choosing among options created by others, throwing their weight behind what they like. Yes, some small technology innovations have emerged from Microsoft, but most of us admire Microsoft for rapidly copying (or acquiring) ideas from outside, and barreling out to market in record time with a sloppy version 1, and then blowing away the competition by version 3. Like Dell, Microsoft is a process innovator. There are small-minded people out there who don't see the strength of this, the kind of people who romanticize original technology innovators. But give Microsoft their due: what they do well is much harder than just coming up with a cool prototype. They have to truly watch the industry like hawks, and be ready to pounce on any emerging, potentially valuable space, corral some IP for bargaining, and get in the game with big stakes. This is not quite the opposite of "Not Invented Here" but a sort of "Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery" doctrine. We praise the open source world for "openness" but in many ways, Microsoft epitomizes a more pragmatic sort of open innovation. Don't forget, Microsoft participated in the open architecture PC when Steve Jobs was still tightly clutching the Apple design world to his chest. Us PC types got viruses, yes. We also got a huge, thriving DOS/Windows software world, half a bazaar, half a cathedral. Now Apple has gotten the Unix religion and powered ahead in openness, but Microsoft plugs away defining openness in its own way.

Is Microsoft's Money where its Mouth is?Why do I believe this book actually represents Microsoft thinking and DNA? Consider some recent evidence:

  1. The Mac vs. PC ads and the response: I was impressed and amused by Apple's Mac vs. PC ads, just like everybody else. Until I saw Microsoft's response. I had to lean back in admiration and applaud. The response was authentically Microsoft: featuring and foregrounding pragmatism and realism instead of hopelessly trying to outdo Apple on design cleverness. No offense to the very funny John Hodgman, but when the real Bill Gates appears on screen, declaring with quiet force, "I am Windows," you cannot help but become aware of the man, the magnitude of his achievements, and his sheer, understated presence, J. C. Penney suits and all. This is not the best of times to be talking about Steve Jobs' persona, but he has always seemed to me somewhat theatrical and affected, definitely aware of the cult of personality he has inspired. Jobs could never anchor Apple ads for non-Apple audiences the way Gates does. The stories behind Jobs' black clothes and Gates' dowdy suits say it all.

  2. The Surface and CCR: Two innovation directions emerging from Microsoft have captured our attention in recent times: robotics (Microsoft's key move was to release the concurrent runtime, CCR, for robotics research), and the Surface. Take these examples, and also take a few moments to browse the website of Microsoft Research, and you get hit by the sheer diversity of things Microsoft is looking at and listening to. You don't get the 'one trick pony' sense of religion-driven cleverness that Google projects. You don't get the sense that the entire company is the extended amplifier for one (admittedly brilliant) guy's brain that you do with Jobs' Apple. You get the sense that this is a company that is unaffectedly, good-humoredly and intelligently scanning its environment, and build on good ideas from outside. Sure, they may be pretty dictatorial about how they do it, but intellectual promiscuity and clear-eyed breadth of vision is evident in Microsoft's innovation model.

Should You Listen to the Future?You should certainly read the book to learn about Microsoft. But should you adopt these Microsoft methods yourself?My answer: depends on who you are. If your company has an essentially pragmatic DNA, this is a great model to follow. If, on the other hand, you have an essentially religious DNA, this type of thinking could slow you down and drain your emotional energy. You might be better off taking the bigger risks of planning around single futures you plan to create and not listening to the futures others might cause.There is a third way: neither religion, nor pragmatism, but aestheticism. Above all, I like interesting stories for the future over ones that are pragmatic or reflective of my values. I mentioned before that stories have backgrounds, characters and plot lines. But that's "any story." Interesting stories, ones that can become great novels or movies, also have conflict. The kinds of futures I like thinking about are the ones that capture conflict of various sorts. Maybe in this case, what I'd really like the future to be about is a conflict between Freelance Planet allied with Frontier Friction, against Proud Tower. I know where my sympathies lie, but what makes it interesting is that I am not sure my team will win.And in my own small way, my being invested in that future makes it more likely to happen. The future is a stock exchange of stories, among which the winner is determined by the self-fulfilling prophecy dynamics of the market. Full disclosure. I started on DOS, moved on to Unix, switched back to Windows in 1998, and have stayed there since. I occasionally dip back into the Linux world for specific stuff. I have not upgraded to Vista and don't plan to unless a gun is pointed at my head, but equally, have no intention of switching to the Mac until they tone down their annoying religiosity.Venkatesh G. Rao writes a blog on business and innovation at, and is a Web technology researcher at Xerox. The views expressed in this blog are his personal ones and do not represent the views of his employer.

About the Author(s)

Never Miss a Beat: Get a snapshot of the issues affecting the IT industry straight to your inbox.

You May Also Like

More Insights