The Trouble with Bill

Over at Ars Technica, Sean Gallagher neatly sums up why Bill Gates should (in my words) just stay the hell away from the company he founded:

The problem that Microsoft now faces is that, unlike in 1995 when the company was riding the client-server/PC wave, its installed base is what is getting disrupted by these new technologies, unless the company can innovate its way into being a disruptor itself. Microsoft plays from a position of weakness in mobile, despite its acquisition of Nokia in a saturated market. Windows Phone is the OS/2 of mobile, while Android is (ironically) the Windows of mobile.

Microsoft hasn’t dominated the cloud, either. Amazon is the de facto standard for public infrastructure as a service, much like DOS and Windows were the de facto standard for the desktop. Google dominates search and public cloud apps. And despite its efforts, Microsoft doesn’t own the de facto standard for private clouds, either—though it’s hard to say if anyone does.

That puts Microsoft in a difficult position and a much different situation than when Bill Gates wrote The Road Ahead. The company has to find a way to create consumer and business products that leverage Microsoft’s strengths and somehow catch or create the zeitgeist of whatever “mobile first, cloud first” means. Microsoft needs a Steve Jobs-like slavish attention to user experience that will make people want to live their lives within Microsoft’s digital framework.

Bill Gates is a smart guy. But he’s historically left user experience to others and focused on building Microsoft’s core technology platforms. Microsoft doesn’t have the luxury of settling for “good enough” user experience anymore.


This is exactly right. Gates was shrewdly able to take advantage of a time when “good enough” really was good enough. IT departments bought beige Windows boxes, and then employees bought PCs for their homes like the ones they used at work. Steve Jobs once said, “The only problem with Microsoft is they just have no taste.” There’s no problem there when IT geeks set the buying patterns for the whole planet. But now consumer devices — typically much better than merely good enough, and many crafted with excellent taste — are invading IT departments with expanding BYOD policies. How you gonna get them back on the Windows farm when they’ve seen OS X? Or for that matter after they’ve used a Galaxy Note.

The model Gates built is breaking, and he’s not the man to build a new one.

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