Microsoft should learn from its mistakes as it enters second childhood

Apple and Google have provided Microsoft with the shot in the arm it needed to revive its underdog spirit.

There is a tendency for big companies to get "set in their ways" over time, when they're dominant players in an industry. Then smaller, feistier upstarts inevitably come along and shake things up. Microsoft did it to IBM -- and then Microsoft turned into IBM, in a lot of ways.

The maturing of a company is a lot like what happens to human beings as they get older. Young people are usually far more adventurous; as people become invested in their families, homes, and jobs, as they accumulate wealth and possessions and have more to lose, they become more risk-adverse. Business entities go through the same sort of cycle.

The maturing of Microsoft

Over the last decade, Microsoft has been seen by many as the "old man" of the tech industry. Windows was something that nerdy middle-aged dads used at work while the cool kids had moved on to Apple and Google products. That image was perpetuated in the public mind by the Mac Guy/PC Guy advertising campaign that portrayed Windows users as the fumbling, bumbling fellow who was always left in the dust by the suave Mac dude's witty put-downs.

To be fair, that unflattering portrayal wasn't completely inaccurate.

Like people, companies often don't realize that they've fallen behind the times. Grown-ups are often so busy taking care of business and juggling all the intricacies of life that they don't notice new trends -- or if they do notice, they dismiss them as passing fads that won't affect them and that they have neither the time nor the inclination to check out.

One might even say this has been Microsoft's modus operandi for a long time. It took a while for the company to warm up to this "Internet thing," for example. A quote to the effect that the Internet was just a passing fad has been widely attributed to Bill Gates, although I've not been able to find any verifiable documentation of that.

It's indisputable, however, that Microsoft's Internet Explorer web browser wasn't released until 1995, about four and a half years after Tim Berners-Lee created the first web browser in 1990. On the other hand, Netscape -- often credited with beating Microsoft to the punch -- didn't release their first browser until 1994. And no one can deny that once Microsoft got on the Internet bandwagon, they went "all in," soon dominating the browser market.

Thinking different

That experience showed that the company could turn on a dime and change course. And it has done so again much more recently, with the complete overhaul of its mobile strategy leading to a Windows Phone that even detractors have admitted is an innovative example of how to (in the words of one of its leading competitors) "think different." Similar comments are being made about Windows 8, after Microsoft took a big gamble by incorporating the Metro interface that turns the traditional Windows UI on its head.

Old dogs and new tricks

But if you think about it, it's really not so unusual for an old dog to start doing new tricks. Astute observers of human psychology will note that people often become less rigid, less afraid, and more adventurous again as they get past middle age. Perhaps the same is true of businesses.

When it comes to individuals, you could surmise that it's because those people have realized that they're nearing the end of their lives. Corporations don't have natural limitations on their life spans, but the underlying motivation could be the same. People who don't have decades ahead of them may feel that they have less to lose by taking chances. In Microsoft's case, the fact that the company slipped out of "first place" on the technology heap may have had the same effect.

When you're on top, you have a lot to lose. You don't want to rock the boat. You take on the "if it's not broken, don't fix it" mentality. That fear of losing your number one position can stifle innovation. When you're number two (as we moving-past-middle-age humans learned from a car rental company), you have to try harder.

Some have argued that Microsoft was at its best when it was the underdog, going up against IBM. Then it became the World's Largest Software Company. And Bill Gates became known as the World's Richest Man. And there was no place else to go.

By giving Microsoft a run for its money, I think Apple and Google have inadvertently provided the company with the shot in the arm that it needed to revive its underdog spirit and get it wholeheartedly back into the race again.

Learning from mistakes

If Microsoft's goal now is to scratch and scramble its way back to the top of the technoheap, the company needs to look outward -- as well as inward -- with a critical eye. When we see that we're on the wrong path, we tend to focus on what we were doing wrong and to set our sights on correcting (or sometimes overcorrecting) our course.

Microsoft should look back and learn from its own mistakes, but it also shouldn't overlook the opportunity to learn from the mistakes of others. James Whitaker's recent widely read blog post, "Why I Left Google," is a case in point. It recounts the story of how a company, that a few short years ago was considered the best place in the world to work, seems to have lost its way. Now we're seeing articles asking if Google is facing the "beginning of the end."

Apple seemingly can do no wrong -- at least as reflected in its financials. However, some of the shine seems to be wearing off in the wake of Steve Jobs's death and a somewhat lackluster response to OS X Lion. Some even say Microsoft and Apple have switched places, with Apple now going the conservative route and Microsoft coming off as the big innovator.

The rest of this decade should be an interesting ride, as the current tech giants square off in a three-way battle for supremacy. Who knows? Maybe another young upstart will come from behind and surprise us all. Meanwhile, I think all this competition is good for Microsoft -- and definitely good for the consumers and enterprises that are likely to have more and better choices.

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By Deb Shinder

Debra Littlejohn Shinder, MCSE, MVP is a technology consultant, trainer, and writer who has authored a number of books on computer operating systems, networking, and security. Deb is a tech editor, developmental editor, and contributor to over 20 add...