2011: Is Microsoft Drifting Into Insignificance?

I do not want to turn this into a rant and uncontrollable discussion about Microsoft products that are, depending on your view, either great or simply suck. However, since Steve Ballmer's keynote at CES 2011 earlier this month I have been wondering whether Microsoft has turned into a black hole for great ideas. What was the latest great idea of Microsoft that truly departed from what we are used to in the mainstream anyway?

Right, that would be Kinect. However, there is a good chance that Microsoft could kill Kinect before it can even open the doors to a future controller-less world. On a personal level, and from my view as a someone who has a lot of respect for Microsoft's past, it is rather upsetting to read a condescending opinion piece by a Microsoft blogger that ridicules hacking of Kinect, because no one would be interested in such efforts and technologies outside of research.

Instead of recognizing such efforts that play into future user models and, to a certain degree, the expressed vision of Microsoft's CEO, they are dismissed as "annoying" script kiddie-projects. Not being able to advance an admittedly great product is a failure in itself, but insulting those who offer the vision Microsoft so desperately would need this day makes you wonder how relevant a company could be whose employees openly publish such opinions. Jump over to SoCal Sam's post to get the full story. My favorite parts of his "thoughts" on Kinect hacks:

"'How many people are using Kinect with open source?', with a smirk or a gleeful smile on their face.  All I can say to them is: “No one”.  Really why would anyone?  The games are structured and well written for Kinect on the Xbox, can you say the same for Linux or Windows?  Would a normal person (which includes App Devs) go out to buy a Kinect to use with Linux or Windows?  Seriously, I just don’t think so."

"Frankly, I think these hacks are a waste of time outside of academics or research.  If you do an interesting hack these days, are you going to be able to monetize it?  Are you going to save the world?  Not likely, most people (and this includes app devs) are no longer using stuff that lone hackers create."

"In the old days hackers did interesting things and gave corporations heads up that they had a security breach.  Currently?  Hackers are mostly script kiddies that like to think that they are performing a service.  The reality, is that they are simply annoying the people who want to use their purchased software for business or pleasure."

"If the hacker you know isn’t making legal money or no money, then you might want to talk to them about their purpose in life, point out that life is getting more expensive and that the world of software has changed."

"On the other hand, using Kinect hacks outside of academics?  Waste of time.  Focus on Windows Presentation Foundation, learn XAML, learn HTML5, better use of your time."

To be fair, even if this opinion is published on Microsoft's MSDN site and even if it is an official comment, this is an individual opinion and I have no idea whether the official corporate delegation of Microsoft would agree. However, let's have a closer look at Microsoft's current products and strategies.    

Windows 7 is doing well, but it is far from being a visionary operating system that does more than what was expected anyway. Windows 8 is still a couple years out, but we already know that Microsoft is modeling the OS after Apple ideas and there is not much we can say would be especially revolutionary. Microsoft should be able to deliver much more and should be shaping trends, not following them. The mainstream cloud computing strategy is largely limited to Office 365, but there is not much innovation that does not simply follow the competition.

Microsoft is trying to catch up with Bing, which is a solid search engine, but cannot differentiate itself enough from Google. Windows Phone 7 is, as much as Microsoft claims, not a different smartphone platform - at least not different enough to enable consumers to easily see the difference. In consumer's views, it is a me-too product no one needs. Quite frankly, Windows 7 has been the kind of waste of time the blogger of above has described. The true innovation is delivered today by the Surface group and Kinect. However, Kinect is a very rough product today - the kind of detailed motion recognition we expected from the very beginning will cost money and only be available via Avatar Kinect in Xbox Live Gold. A rather dumb move in my opinion.

Extending Kinect to Windows to use apps such as Google Earth or telepresence environments seem to be a natural evolution. However, at least SoCal Sam does not believe that anyone would want to use Kinect with Windows or Linux. I am not sure if he was kidding about that.  If he was, I am wondering if a company that quashes and dismisses efforts to explore quite apparent usage models (free of charge to Microsoft) can be setting trends or if it is losing significance? A few weeks ago, I discussed with some analysts whether Microsoft has just become to stale and old to be able to move in ways companies like Google or Facebook do. There is no doubt that Microsoft will be around for a long time, but there is a good chance that, in a few years, Microsoft will be about as important to the general user as IBM is today. It is there and is fairly successful, but it is not setting the main technology trends for the immediate future.

Would you trust Microsoft with interpreting the direction of current user needs? I doubt it. If we relied on Microsoft alone, we would be pretty much stuck with what we have for the next decade. I miss the passion and enthusiasm that has Microsoft successful. I miss the risk-taking and the kind of jaw-dropper product Windows 95 was.

Seriously, Microsoft. It is time for an exciting product and an open view on what is possible.

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  • silver565
    Microsoft needs a new marketing scheme. A new angle...
  • AnUnusedUsername
    Besides their OS, I'd say microsoft doesn't hold much relevance to anyone even today. Ignoring the fact that their operating system is the one something like 95% of applications get developed for is a pretty big thing to ignore though. Windows is a functional operating system that doesn't get in your way all the time like macOS does, so microsoft deserves some praise for that, but the main reason most people use windows now is because its basically the only option. Yes, linux can do everything windows and macOS can do, but in many cases you have to emulate windows to run programs anyway, and linux has enough variations and quirks that it isn't a negligible task to switch to it.
    Windows is still, however, more or less the exact same setup as it was with windows 95. Sure, its flashier, but the basic interface is the same. Really, this isnt a huge problem, and microsoft could continue to refine the interface all they wanted if they also could keep the overall demands on the system down. But microsoft is really headed in the only possible direction they could go to lose their huge userbase: following apple. Windows is a popular operating system *because* it is not macOS. If microsoft tries to turn windows into macOS, those that like apple will continue to overpay for macs (apple is going to make a more apple-y product than microsoft, lets face it), and those that like windows will be forced to go to linux (or just keep using windows xp for 20 more years). If windows 8 ends up doing the equivalent of running like vista but taking the UI from some combination of seven and macOS, as it seems to be headed, I'd be astonished if it isn't the downfall of microsoft as an operating system developer. On the other hand, if windows 8 performs better than xp and has an interface with less *easy* and more usable functions (again in the vein of xp or even 98 rather than the way vista and seven hide the user from details) it could very well make the company relevant again.

    As far as their gaming console goes, exclusive games should be all that determines which console to use. Well, that and system cost, but no one cares that it costs just as much to own (and thus have acces to online features) a $300 360 for 6 years than a $600 ps3 forever.

    The kinect is an interesting device, but a gaming console is really a lousy use of the technology. Using the wii as an example, most games just don't work with motion control, and its only party games that make good use of motion controls, the rest only throw in motion as a minor gimmick easily replicated with buttons. Kinect may have interesting applications outside of gaming (such as navigating menus and the like which it is actually used for on 360, albeit sometimes rather awkwardly).

    ... That was way too long... I have a habit of wasting too much time writing comments no one cares about, it seems...
  • LePhuronn
    I really don't like Steve Jobs, but the crazy bastard has a knack of thinking up products and marketing them to seem godly, and they end up being market leaders.

    Microsoft needs a Jobs-like figure. Gates is gone and Ballmer is just an embarrassing hack with no vision and fewer ideas. He seriously needs to go.