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Sunny and 72 degrees, two days after Thanksgiving. As I cut the grass in the back yard, I listened to one of my nerd podcasts. These podcasts are usually about one of three things: productivity, politics, or Apple computers. Yeah, I know. Anyway, as an Indian Summer breeze blew, I listened to John Siracusa explain how Microsoft blew it —falling from their perch atop the technological world fifteen years ago, to their present position, floundering about trying to figure out where it all went wrong—and what they need to do regain their mojo.
Lawn mowing and snark—an amazingly satisfying combination. Siracusa began his rehearsal of the computer marketplace by recalling the lay of the digital land back in the mid—s, when Microsoft was generally viewed as the embodiment of business genius, while Apple suffered as a marginal niche presence. Microsoft dominated the field of computing.
The trajectory of the two companies could not have been more dissimilar, symbolized by the infamous press conference in November , in which Steve Jobs announced a partnership with archenemy, Microsoft.
The staging, which Steve Jobs later lamented , had Bill Gates via satellite looming over the proceedings on a giant screen. One of the first things Jobs did after resuming control was to take a company already operating on thin margins, and cut it more— from fifteen product lines down to four. This streamlining, in retrospect, must have appeared harsh in a situation where survival was not a foregone conclusion—like throwing most of the remaining food on the lifeboat overboard. As it turns out, that redefining of focus back onto core principles saved the company.
Microsoft, on the other hand, Siracusa argues, has tried too hard to please what it figures is its most important market … big corporations—and not even the people who work behind computers all day in big corporations, but the people who buy computers and set up networks in big corporations. In other words, Microsoft has too often listened to the wrong people, if what they want to do is sell software that ordinary people want to use. It may be overly facile to say that the whole thing boils down to a dispute between creativity and capitalism, or between clarity and confusion of purpose.