Students and young adults can’t remember, and probably can’t imagine, the time when Microsoft ruled major swaths of the technology world with an iron fist. They’ve grown up with digital gear powered by software from a variety of companies, of which Microsoft is only one.
Unlike them, I find myself marveling at a host of recent missteps by the software giant. Too much of the old arrogance remains, but Microsoft has almost always, even if belatedly and sometimes only part-way, learned from its mistakes.
Consider these items, among many others:
• The announcement of the feature-rich next Xbox entertainment console should have been a triumph, but Microsoft set off a furor when it introduced huge changes in the way software (games) would be sold and used, including a requirement to be online. Boiled down, the obvious goal was to curb the sale of used games. After an uproar among loyal users, the company backed down almost completely and essentially restored the current system. There are still lots of issues with the new Xbox, including its higher cost than competing machines – and more than a few observers think Microsoft’s new licensing system was actually going to be better – but listening to customers was wise.
• Windows 8 has been, to put it mildly, a debacle. Now we have version 8.1. The operating system is a major shift away from the Windows XP-2000-7 design that so many millions of users had become accustomed; it is confusing, trying to be all things to all devices, tablets and PCs. Like many other people, I tried it on a PC I sometimes use and quickly reinstalled Windows 7 (albeit on a machine that didn’t have a touch screen). But underneath the messiness is a lot of smart code, and the Windows 8.1 update looks like it’ll fix some of the worst problems it introduced with the initial launch. I haven’t tried it yet, but based on what I’ve seen from people who have, I’m reasonably sure that I’ll be running it on that Windows machine.
• CEO Steve Ballmer embarrassed himself back when Apple introduced the iPhone, by dismissing it as a device that hardly anyone would want or use. Only now has Microsoft created a version of ubiquitous Office suite (Windows and Mac) for the iOS platform. Characteristically, in its first version, it’s deeply flawed: stripped-down to basic functions, and usable so far only on the iPhone (as opposed to the iPad where it would make more sense) and under a restrictive licensing arrangement. I assume Microsoft will A) expand the capabilities of the mobile version and B) create an Android version. The point is that Microsoft is just north of nowhere with its own mobile operating systems (Windows RT and Windows Phone), and this move is simple common sense in a more competitive landscape. (Confession: Over the years I’ve come to like Microsoft Word and PowerPoint. Since I use the GNU/Linux operating system on my main computer, I have little choice but to run the very adequate LibreOffice, a free software Microsoft Office semi-clone. But if Microsoft ever offered the suite or even just Word for Linux I’d almost certainly pull out my credit card.)
• Speaking of Office, Microsoft also backed away from a harshly restrictive licensing scheme it tried to foist on buyers of Office 2013. Originally, the software was licensed for a single machine, period. After bitter – and justified – complaints Microsoft agreed that users could install it on another machine and assign the license to that computer.
Those kinds of moves reflect a company that feels obliged to compete in a tougher marketplace, a far cry from the old days when Microsoft dictated – often employing ugly and even illegal tactics – what would happen. And they are part of the reason why it has become a spectator sport to say Microsoft is in deep trouble. Clearly, the Windows dominance is over beyond the desktop, and even there Apple is carving out significant market share with OS X. (Linux is making steady progress from a tiny base, and some computer makers are eyeing Android, a Linux variant.) Microsoft still has an overwhelming market share in large enterprises, though, Google’s web-based Office-like applications are getting stronger. To have a serious mobile market share, Microsoft needs something like a miracle. The list of real and potential woes goes on and on.
But Microsoft is still making boatloads of money. It still employs talented people. Somewhat to my surprise, given the antipathy with which I once held the company, I keep hoping it will end up as a healthy and honorable competitor. Maybe that’s hoping for too much, given the history, but call me an optimist.
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