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Why Microsoft lose and Apple wins, part two

There are some very interesting facts about the reaction of Microsoft to Spotlight after its first demo revealed in the comments to a post on Joe Wilcox’s AppleWatch blog.

"MSFT has worked on WinFS for more than a decade without success in
making it fast, reliable, and easy-to-use enough for release. The
Longhorn "reset" in 2004 was in large part the realization that WinFS
was still not ready for primetime.

At the June 2004 WWDC, Jobs blew away the MSFT engineers in
attendance by demonstrating lightning fast Spotlight searches on Tiger
(OSX 10.4). The court-released MSFT emails show how flabbergasted they
were, and the imperative of getting the Tiger preview DVDs back to
Redmond for reverse engineering. Comments by MSFT’s Jim Allchin and
Lenn Pryor were priceless.

Here’s Pryor:

" You will have to take Vic’s disk…I am not giving mine up.
;) Tonight I got on corpnet, hooked up Mail.app to my Exchange server
and then downloaded all of my mail into the local file store. I did
system wide queries against docs, contacts, apps, photos, music, and my
Microsoft email on a Mac. It was f*cking amazing. It is like I just got
a free pass to Longhorn land today."

Here’s Allchin:

"Yes. I know. It is hard to take. I don’t believe we will have search this fast."

And years later, Microsoft still does not have search this fast – and, from the looks of what Joe is saying, probably won’t have it for many years.

So why is Apple so good at this stuff, while Microsoft keeps churning out concepts – like it’s latest, "table top computing" – that it never implements properly?

Of course, there’s the quality of the engineers. Apple has some really, really fantastic people. But there’s a lot of quality engineers within Microsoft too, certainly more than enough to actually get some decent products working well.

The answer probably lies in the leadership and strategic direction of the company. Microsoft is far too ready to surrender to the tyranny of the focus group when it comes to product design and development. What’s more, there are a million vested interests within the company which all have to have their say on a product. The results often resemble pile-ons rather than product plans. If a product is designated to be of "strategic importance", it ends up with features piled on to it that are of "strategic importance" too.

At Apple, things are very different. No focus groups. There is only one group whose opinion matters, that of Steve Jobs and his close executives. And the ultimate arbiter of taste if Jobs – what he says, goes.

For most companies, that would be a recipe for failure. But, happily for Apple, Jobs has very good taste – and produces far more hits than misses.

Then, there is the process that’s followed. Apple only produces a product when they can make it the very best possible experience for the consumer. This is something the company doesn’t compromise on, and it’s a distinction between both it and Microsoft, and it and the old "pre-Jobs" Apple. If the technology isn’t available to make the best customer experience, Apple doesn’t do the product. This means that, in strictly technical terms, Apple’s products are rarely the most advanced – but they concentrate on making the products deep, easy to use, and turning the overall experience into something extremely pleasurable.

Microsoft, by contrast, is never worth buying till version three. Actually, that old saying isn’t quite as true as it once was – the company has got a lot better at getting things right first time – but there’s still too little focus on perfection of detail, especially in product design. In product design, Microsoft (like most companies) sees design as "lipstick on a pig".

Then there is the overall strategic direction. As David Card puts it:

"You’re gonna fend off Google and cloud computing with a touch screen?? Good luck. I do hope there’s a skunkworks Plan B in the labs. No wonder buying Yahoo ‘isn’t strategic.’"

Unfortunately, there are too many vested interests within Microsoft who want to avoid reality and hold on to their business, and see strangling other potential lines of business as their best way of doing this. Microsoft has enough talented engineers and developers to create the equivalent of Google Apps quickly, but still hasn’t. Why? Because it will take revenue away from Office, and anything that does that needs to have an equally strong business case. The fact that this means that Microsoft still loses revenue – but to Google – doesn’t register on the mind of the Office product manager. They can’t kill Google, but they can kill something internal which competes with them.

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