by Frank Schnittger
Wed Jul 22nd, 2015 at 12:46:29 PM EST
Microsoft is one of the most successful corporations in the world, having blazed the trail for personal computing and making its founder, Bill Gates the World's richest man. Windows has become almost ubiquitous on PCs and laptops and MS Office is the office productivity tool of choice for most business and personal users. But what has Microsoft accomplished in the last 20 years beyond leveraging its early mover advantage and dominant position in PC computing? I would argue very little, and I would like to invite you to argue otherwise. But first a little personal personal computing history...
Back around 1990 I was given responsibility for end-user computing in part of the business I was working in, although nobody quite knew what that meant at the time. WordPerfect had just replaced Multimate as the corporate standard word processor, and Lotus 123 was replacing earlier micromodelling programmes used by accountants and other business analysts. The truly adventurous management consultant types started giving management presentations using Lotus Freelance and some had even used DBaseIII for rudimentary database applications.
I had built what I thought were some pretty sophisticated Lotus 123 models, and even written a few DBaseIII applications for analyzing Personnel records and computing the cost of various proposed pay deals because our mainframe systems were too inflexible to do "what if" analyses.
I well recall one of the older members of staff doing meticulous calculations using hugely complex paper based calculations based on long print-outs of personnel salaries and calculating the cost of an x% pay rise based on their place in the incremental scale and other allowances they might be entitled to, and resolved that this was not for me: there had to be a better way; especially as the combination of percentages for different groups kept changing during the course of a pay negotiation.
And then Windows 3.1 arrived on the scene. I had had a look at Windows 2.0 which had been bundled on some then cheepo Amstrads we had acquired, and had been utterly baffled as to what it was all about. But somehow Windows 3.1 promised to change the game. I was very well aware of the pain involved in learning a completely new user interface every time you used a new package, together with all the associated problems of converting data from one file format to another and connecting to printers etc.
The cost of training staff to use all these different packages was phenomenal, and the proficiency levels in any one package tended to remain low. The license and support costs were also huge and growing. So the attraction of a new user interface using a more intuitive visual metaphor which was common across most end-user applications and which promised to make data portable between applications and end all that infernal fiddling around with printer drivers was very great indeed.
The Head Office IT Mandarins were less impressed however, and I well recall the Head of IT R&D branding Windows as just another of the various annual IT fads which would be gone and replaced with another fad within 12 months. Traditional computing was still heavily mainframe and Mini computer based and the "green screen" denizens viewed the new PC applications, and especially Windows, with extreme suspicion.
Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM and any serious programmer had to be using Oracle, if not Cobol, C, or some other extremely abstract language. The problem with Microsoft was that it wasn't "reassuringly expensive" and stories of the flaky stability of Windows PC's abounded. In fairness, only a fool would have trusted a Microsoft based application with a mission critical transaction based or operational system at the time, but the systems I was interested in were more in the nature of management information, presentation and office productivity tools. The worst that could happen is that you might lose some of that report you were working on.
And there was a business imperative. The company had negotiated a business plan with HQ and the Unions which required dramatic improvements in productivity. The number of clerical and secretarial staff were to be slashed, and much of their work had to be automated. The explosion in functionality that could be found in Word 2.0, Excel 4 and Powerpoint finally won the day and they were gradually introduced to replace WordPerfect, Lotus 123 and Freelance after an awkward period when it was finally accepted that the Windows versions of those latter programmes didn't really work.
The other project I was working on at the time was installing a pilot DOS based email system onto the new fangled corporate network that had just been installed - primarily to connect other diverse computer systems. A key Director had voiced his objections: why would we bother putting in an email system when we already had an internal snail mail postal system in place? People would get, at most, one email a day, and where was the saving in that?
The pilot email project was a limited success. The mixed bag of 30 pilot users used the system more or less frequently, and there could be days when I received no emails and felt like sending out a broadcast appeal "Is there anybody out there?"
Fortunately the MD came to my rescue: He insisted all Board members be part of the pilot, and that he, personally, would only send out key memos to them by email. You were out of the loop if you didn't log in. Of course the most skeptical Director just had his secretary log in and print out his emails...he later conceded defeat and went on an offsite course in personal computing. As someone who had always traded on his intelligence, he couldn't be seen to be falling behind what other managers were doing.
But Microsoft also came to my rescue. The product we were using for our pilot had limited functionality and didn't really address the need for radical productivity improvements. A survey of the work done by secretarial and clerical personnel had revealed that an alarming amount of their time was spent in filing and re-filing documents, and arranging and re-arranging meetings. Were there any e-mail based productivity tools which could assist with those processes?
No significant windows based email system or diary management system was yet available but a friendly chat with Microsoft MD in Ireland, Anne Riordan, revealed that Microsoft had a system in development in Redmond, Seattle. Phase 2 of the pilot switched to using a Beta version of Microsoft Mail and an integrated diary management tool called Schedule+ which later, combined, became Outlook.
Again, a cultural shift was required. Managers used to having a private secretary now had to type their own memos as emails or attachments, and arrange their own meetings using Schedule+. Many were afraid to expose their diary time availability to the network enabling others to see their free/busy times and book meetings without the usual tortuous negotiations between secretaries whose job was to protect and maintain a mystique of busy-ness around their boss. Again the MD led the way, insisting that a meeting not arranged over Schedule+ wasn't happening.
I learned an interesting lesson in project management when putting that project together. Conscious that the previous pilot had met with some opposition, and also conscious that a different DOS based e-mail system (without integrated diary management) was being used in the UK, I was anxious to bring in the project cost below IR£100K - the limit that the Dublin Board could then approve without further approval by HQ in London. After some corner cutting and "borrowing" from other project budgets, I was extremely pleased to bring in the cost at IR£99K, with the software and some technical support being supplied for free by Microsoft. (In keeping with the need to market the project using a catchy title, that project was named OASIS - Office Automation Systems and Information Services).
Some weeks later, my manager informed me that the project had been approved: - for IR£240K! Where had that figure come from I asked, innocently. Apparently he had taken the view, unilaterally, that the Board was expecting a business wide roll-out to cost in the region of 200-300K, so why disappoint them? Furthermore, if our system was ever to have any chance of becoming a global standard, it had to have visibility at Global corporate HQ. If they approved the project, they would have some interest in its success. That was my first lesson that production cost has no necessary relationship with sales price...which is best determined by the "market" you are trying to sell into.
The project was an outstanding success both in technical terms, and in facilitating the organizational changes we were already committed to. So much so, that the IT Department had to impose strict limits on what attachments were allowed (no photographs!) because the network was groaning under the load of increased traffic, and strict limits in the amount of file space that could be allocated to individual users for emails, attachments, and other documents. The idea of streaming a video over the network would have practically been a sacking offense!
It is fair to say I was an enthusiastic supporter of all things Microsoft from then on. So much so, that we later used a (still largely vapourware) Alpha version of Microsoft Access (codenamed Cirrus) to build a Human Resources Information System (Named Hermes) which enabled managers to directly run queries or reports on personnel records without having to request a print-out from the IT Department. (It was some time before the client server architecture specified as being in-built in the product actually worked so the Network manager was not amused...) It was the first Access based application built outside Microsoft itself.
I share the above anecdotes to illustrate that, at that time, I would yield to no man in my admiration of Microsoft, and would have gladly bought shares in the company had I had spare cash at the time. It became a bit of a running joke amongst IT professionals with a far greater range of technical expertise than I could ever muster. So what happened to my admiration of Microsoft since then?
The first problem was that Microsoft seemed to totally miss the internet boat. By the mid-1990's the internet was being used for a lot more that E-Mail, and yet Microsoft seemed to leave the leadership in that space to AltaVista, Mozilla, Netscape and, later, Google and Yahoo - perhaps seeing no obvious revenue streams there. From a general business point of view it was galling to see a new user interface standard gradually emerge - having just expensively trained all users in the Windows interface - when along came the internet with a poorly defined and continually evolving standard for how users should interact with their computers.
But the greater problem was that Microsoft never seemed to really increase its range of applications on offer. Office productivity tools can only take a business forward so far. The next wave of corporate process automation involve the automation and integration of far more complex and fundamental enterprise management processes - manufacturing process control, packaging processes, logistics, accounts payable, sales, customer contact management, procurement, and financial control. Microsoft seemed to leave that space to Oracle and SAP.
Even document management, a process that involves access control, version control, approval workflow, and publication management - and which should have been a core competency for Microsoft, was neglected. My team ended up using Lotus Notes to develop an application with the above functionality and which had to work across both PC and Apple platforms as it involved the origination, approval and management of artwork for packaging, display, and advertising.
I have now long retired from gainful employment and haven't worked in the IT space since, so I cannot really comment on what Microsoft has done since. All I know is that as an end user, I have paid again and again for essentially the same software which does little more than the seminal versions which hit the market in the early 1990's. If anything, despite the exponential growth in processor speeds since, my laptop is running Microsoft software more slowly than ever.
Perhaps I am taking many incremental improvements since for granted, but I can see no step change in the range of functionality offered by Microsoft products - Nothing on a par with what Apple, Google or Facebook, never mind Oracle or SAP, have offered since. The recent announcement of record losses following a failed takeover of a Nokia business is merely highlighting a trend: What is Microsoft offering consumers or businesses that is dramatically better than what is available elsewhere?
But I am now very much out of touch with the tech world and hence the question mark in my title. Perhaps you can better inform me of what Microsoft is good for now...