Mobility

We can all fail like Microsoft... if we're lucky

Microsoft is a complete failure, one that we should all hope to emulate.

Ballmer

As analysts currently compete to out-breathless each other in their praise of Apple, one company tends to get overlooked: Microsoft.

Oh, sure, now with a shiny, new CEO, Satya Nadella, the world has become compassionate toward Microsoft again. But the impressive thing about Microsoft is that it has outperformed the market for over a decade, even as its Mesozoic products (Windows and Office) came under fire from shifting market trends.

Hence, Redmonk analyst James Governor is right to question the Microsoft naysayers (of which I've been one) who feel the company failed under Steve Ballmer's leadership: "I really wish I could fail like that."

Dinosaurs keep on dying... or not

Governor was riffing on a Benedict Evans tweet:

Figure A

It's not clear what Evans means by his tweet (everyone is a dinosaur compared to Apple?), and he doesn't clarify. Clearly, the iPhone-fueled Apple has set new standards in corporate growth, against which pretty much every company of any size looks like a lumbering, dying dinosaur.

But that's not the only thing the chart shows.

Microsoft never stopped being cool

For Mac-heads like me, it's easy to forget that most of the (desktop) world still runs Windows. That clearly isn't the case in the most important category going forward—mobile—but despite the media painting Microsoft as completely irrelevant, its corporate revenue (and corporate valuation) just keeps growing from strength to strength.

This leads Governor to offer a very optimistic eulogy for the "dinosaur" Microsoft:

"Plenty of smart people talk about Steve Ballmer's time as CEO at Microsoft as a failure, but I really wish I could fail like that. I watch enterprise software, and Microsoft has been turning in organic double digit growth in multiple billion dollar plus businesses year after year for over 10 years now. That's impressive execution. Microsoft servers and tools business is perhaps a triceratops—a dinosaur with more horns than a unicorn. Has Microsoft succeeded at everything? No—but show me the company that has."

I caught a glimpse of this lately when evaluating the likely fortunes of Windows 10. Microsoft has completely botched mobile, if we call "mobile" the handheld devices and apps that feed them. But Microsoft's real mobile strategy may have much more to do with cloud than Nokia devices.

As I said in that previous post,

"We used to think of hardware as 'the thing that runs my code.' But then the web came along and largely rendered the operating system, and the hardware running it, obsolete. While we're not there yet in mobile—native apps are the rule of the day—we are definitely enmeshed in a world where native code matters far less than the cloud data feeding it."

Again, Apple has reset expectations on what winning looks like. But before Apple, Microsoft dominated over 90% of the world's most important market (PCs), dominated office productivity apps, and more. And despite those businesses losing their relevance in a mobile world, Microsoft has maintained unicorn-esque growth over the past decade and looks well positioned to continue.

Hence, as critical as we've been of Microsoft over the years, perhaps we need to reevaluate what "failure" and "success" mean.

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About Matt Asay

Matt Asay is a veteran technology columnist who has written for CNET, ReadWrite, and other tech media. Asay has also held a variety of executive roles with leading mobile and big data software companies.

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