If you’ve been following the chatter among the techno-literati, it’s become almost fashionable to predict Microsoft’s demise. We see headlines like: “The Odds are Increasing that Microsoft’s Business Will Collapse.” At first blush that seems ludicrous to me. But could there be some truth to it?
Not so long ago, Microsoft seemed unassailable. Even now, the Windows operating system exceeds 90 percent market share. Internet Explorer owns 60 percent of the browser market. And Office — where Microsoft really makes its money — still owns over 95 percent of its market.
But Microsoft has become synonymous with “slow” and “stodgy.” Which brings to mind a possible precedent: IBM. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, IBM was by far the dominant player in the computing world. It felt like they had invented the category and they certainly were a marketing juggernaut. IBM was so dominant that there was a well-known catch phrase that went, “no-one ever lost their job choosing IBM.” In fact, it was more than a catch phrase. It was the commonly accepted wisdom.
But by the early 1990s IBM was in crisis. The world around had changed and they’d been unable to keep up. There was speculation that they wouldn’t be able to survive. They did, by radically changing their strategy to one that is largely based on services. Now they’re still huge and successful. But also largely irrelevant.
Could the same thing happen to Microsoft? In the late ‘90s I did some work with them. They were top dog but acted like they were running scared. They said it was an essential part of their corporate culture and was critical to them remaining on top. But now I can say from personal experience that the healthy paranoia is completely gone, replaced with an attitude that Microsoft can’t truly be threatened. The only thing that truly matters is hitting the numbers that determine your annual bonus, and it’s OK to do that at the expense of other parts of the organization.
Now, I don’t believe for a second that there isn’t a level of paranoia building at the highest levels of Microsoft. But it’s going to be a massive undertaking to do at Microsoft what Steve Jobs was able to do at Apple, meaning completely turn the company around. Microsoft’s incredible financial strength gives them a lot of breathing room, but without wrenching changes, they’re in danger of becoming just another IBM. Huge. Successful. And irrelevant.