Why Microsoft needs a new focus

For Microsoft to survive the gravitational pull of enterprise irrelevance, a lot of things need to change. Starting with focus.

At a product and company level Microsoft’s lack of focus is obvious. Everything seems more important than everything else. Phones, tablets, phablets, slates, Office, Windows, advertisers. There is no product category you can confidently say they haven’t or won’t have a pop at. Before writing this piece I had always given them credit for at least not trying to do a social network. Wrong.

This attitude leaks into software. Take a look at their flagship email client, Outlook. You’d be forgiven for assuming I was tampering with this screenshot, or it’s from the early 2000’s. This is Outlook 2013. This was designed and released in the past 12 months.

Here’s what focus looks like…

Jobs jumped up, grabbed a marker, and drew a simple rectangle on a whiteboard. “Here’s the new application,” he said. “It’s got one window. You drag your video into the window. Then you click the button that says ‘Burn’. That’s it. That’s what we’re going to make.”

Obviously it’s chalk and cheese to compare the relative interface complexity of email and burning DVDs, but the difference in attitude is what’s telling. “How much can we take on?” versus “How little can we do?”.

The same problem can be seen in Microsoft’s product line, compared with Apple’s. As a reminder, here are some of the areas that Microsoft are involved in.

Again, here’s what it means to focus a company:

“STOP!” he shouted at one big product strategy session. “This is crazy.” He grabbed a magic marker, padded to a whiteboard, and drew a horizontal and vertical line to a make a four-squared chart. “Here’s what we need,” he continued. Atop the two columns he wrote “Consumer” and “Pro”; he labeled the two rows “Desktop” and “Portable.” Their job, he said, was to make four great products, one for each quadrant. “The room was in dumb silence”, Schiller recalled.

There was also a stunned silence when Jobs presented the plan to the September meeting of the Apple board. “Gil had been urging us to approve more and more products every meeting,” Woolward recalled. “He kept saying we need more products. Steve came in and said we needed fewer. He drew a matrix with four quadrants and said that this was where we should focus.”

Jobs made hard decisions. He killed off whole divisions: printers, servers, the Newton and lots more. He laid off over three thousand people. But, those who were left knew exactly what the fuck they were doing there; they were building one of the four products.

Microsoft are in great shape compared to Apple of the 90s, but it won’t stay that way forever. They’re on course for a business that is miles wide and inches deep. Hard decisions need to be made. Products need to be killed. Divisions need to be sold off. It won’t be as clean cut as Apple’s four product breakdown, but someone needs to start drawing some lines.