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Microsoft's Journey May Leave Too Many Behind

Microsoft's pending leadership change offers a chance to tweak its boom-or-bust "we're on a journey" message. Instead, it appears the company is simply turning up the volume.
When a company changes leadership at the top, it signals an opportunity for new ideas, fresh perspectives and, if necessary, a shift in future direction. It's also an opportunity to lay blame for past missteps at the feet of the predecessor.

Steve Ballmer's pending retirement should create such opportunities for Microsoft. While it would be wrongheaded to expect Microsoft's next CEO to throw out the company's entire playbook, the leadership change enables the company to gracefully tweak its ongoing "journey" message and corresponding product development to better reflect that, hey, maybe a finance pro toiling in Excel and a college student playing Xbox don't have the same needs.

That's ultimately one of the flaws in Microsoft's recent strategy, especially for Windows: an apparent insistence that users crave a uniform experience across devices, locations and functions. Ballmer said as much himself in his recent "One Microsoft" email to employees: "About a year ago, we embarked on a new strategy to realize our vision, opening the devices and services chapter for Microsoft," Ballmer wrote. "We made important strides -- launching Windows 8 and Surface, moving to continuous product cycles, bringing a consistent user interface to PCs, tablets, phones and Xbox -- but we have much more to do." (Note: emphasis mine.)

[ For more on Microsoft's strategy, see Microsoft's Big Risk As Ballmer Departs: Windows Phone. ]

There's plenty of upside for businesses in Microsoft's new direction, especially in rapid-release development cycles. But even if we set aside Xbox -- a conspicuously out-of-place device for most business users -- the notion that we all crave a single-user experience across PCs and mobile devices is misguided. It's also one of the key reasons that Windows 8 has caused so much consternation. More than a few InformationWeek readers have chimed in with similar sentiments via email or website comments.

"Elleno," for example, recently wrote: "I use my tablet for reading, surfing the Web, looking up info, running apps, but for proper work -- writing a letter to a client, analyzing a spreadsheet or dealing with email in business -- nothing beats a PC. [Businesses] are not swapping out PCs any time soon. And nor are consumers who do more than consume information." Reader "Palapatine" replied: "And that is why burying the desktop [behind the modern UI] and officially calling it legacy scared all users and developers with common sense."

With the dust still settling on Ballmer's announcement, though, Microsoft appears to be amplifying the one-size-fits-all message rather than revising it. The Nokia deal comes to mind, as does its ongoing Windows 8.x strategy. While Windows 8.1 includes some concessions to traditional PC users, it remains a touch-first OS that's better suited for tablets and hybrid devices. Smaller-scale decisions such as the shutdown of TechNet subscriptions for IT pros haven't helped dispel the notion that Microsoft is forsaking its historic dominance with business users -- many of whom will continue to use PCs for the long haul -- in its quest to compete with Apple and Google in the consumer mobility market.

This isn't to suggest that Microsoft should ignore consumers, per se. Its shareholders won't stand for that. As InformationWeek's Michael Endler recently noted, Microsoft might not be able to live on enterprise dollars alone. Isn't there a more prudent course, though, one that still embraces the "bold vision," "transformation" and "new chapter" sentiments prevalent in Microsoft's recent communications about Windows? Wouldn't Microsoft be better served by a bit of chest-thumping about its core expertise in business computing -- and how it will serve a new, different set of consumer computing experiences -- rather than talking up mobility and the blurring lines between work and home, like we're just now entering this brave new world? (It might be new to Microsoft, but the rest of us having been living in that world for a quite a while.)

Instead of insisting on the "unified experience" for businesses and consumers alike, regardless of their hardware or usage, why not declare, "We're going to have our cake and eat it, too." Or the long-winded version: "We know the difference between an architect who spends 10 hours a day in a CAD application on a desktop and a casual Web surfer with one eye on their smartphone and the other on their TV -- and we will deliver the best experiences to suit those different needs."

For now, though, Microsoft's playing the same unified-experience tune. There's a whole bunch of applicable clichés here: robbing Peter to pay Paul, cutting off your nose to spite your face, throwing out the baby with bathwater and so on. A leadership change should help Microsoft sidestep those clichés as the company charts its next 10 years and beyond. At the moment, though, the "journey" continues at full speed, and PC users in particular might get left behind.

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