Decline and Competition

The retirement of Steve Ballmer has led to a number of observations on Microsoft’s increasing irrelevance in the software world and discussion about the reasons for it. There are two popular explanations for this decline: the ‘stack ranking’ employee review system that divided staff rather than creating successful teams, or simply that ‘Ballmer has no taste’.

Both of these are true to some extent, but neither really get to the bottom of the issue. There was certainly a lot of competition within Microsoft. It was widely believed that Bill Gates liked to encourage it, and there would often be several alternative solutions to a given problem under development. When I was leading the design for DirectShow, there were nine competing next-generation multimedia architectures. I spent half my time negotiating with these other groups to get them to switch to DirectShow. But while this was frustrating at the time, and seems inefficient, other companies have made this work.

Microsoft understood the problems that needed solving, and had ideas for many of the things that later became important, but failed to create effective solutions. I used a keyboardless tablet computer in 1991, twenty years before the iPad, but I only used it once. It worked, but it wasn’t really a product that fired the imagination.

I’ve heard people observe that Microsoft succeeded by creating things that were ‘good enough’. When I worked there, I was told on more than one occasion by senior managers that we needed to ship quickly and not worry about creating a good product. If it was successful, we would have time to rewrite the software for a second release, from a position of strength. If it failed, the quality of the software would not matter.

And there, in a single anecdote, is the essence of the thing. Microsoft was a company that competed. Competition was what it did best. There was no prize for creating an elegant solution to a problem, or going the extra mile to ensure that the details were polished. What counted was competing.

I’m sure Steve Jobs was frustrating in a lot of ways, but when he died, the observation that brought tears to my eyes was this: he showed that you could be successful by creating a product that you were proud of. Commercial success does not require a shoddy compromise.