June 17, 2006

how microsoft lost their canary


As any reader of Techmeme will know, the big story in the bloggersphere this week is Bill Gates leaving Microsoft.

And Techmeme readers will also know that the second biggest story was Robert Scoble also leaving Microsoft.

Actually, I think there was a bigger story that we bloggers kinda missed. Neither Bill leaving or Robert leaving is the biggest story per se. The "Big Story" REALLY is:

Micorosoft losing both Bill and Robert in the very same week.

In one week, Microsoft lost the two people who best expressed Microsoft; one on the macro-corporate level, one on the micro-grass-roots level.

What does this really say about Microsoft?

To me it says, "Party Over".

To me it says, Microsoft finally has reached the crossroads indicated in the cartoon above, and have opted to take the non-Cluetrain route. They opted to take that route because they have run out of ideas. They're at a time in their corporate life when they need a big idea. And you what? They. Simply. Don't. Have. One.

Hey, it's their company, it's their money, they can do what they like. There's lots of money still there to made, managing one's own demise. General Motors has been doing it for decades. And Madison Avenue, that's pretty much all they do now.

But Robert was the canary in the coal mine. And Microsoft's just lost their canary.

We live in interesting times.

[UPDATE:] Steve Clayton from Microsoft pipes in. Rock on.

As for running out of ideas and the party being over: that all depends on your perspective and I personally think the party could be just about to begin.

Just as an example of how things are changing here: what kind of company would put their leaders on something like Channel 9 right after the announcemnts this week? A year ago we wouldn’t for sure. It shows balls frankly on the part of all concerned.

Posted by hugh macleod at June 17, 2006 5:04 PM | TrackBack

I don't know. What I see is that for a long time now Scoble has been about Scoble and his self promotion train, not about providing a face for Microsoft. Scoble turned from a canary a couple of years back to the peacock once he started floating the book idea. Even at the last geek dinner in London he attended you could see it, it was about blogging, not about what blogging did for Microsoft. There are, for me, better technical people out there, providing a more human face for Microsoft, the face I want to see as a developer.

Loosing Bill is a problem though. Especially if Ballmer stays

Posted by: barryd at June 17, 2006 6:48 PM

I dunno. At least at the macro level, I think Ray Ozzie is going to be a good thing.

Posted by: Scott Kingery at June 17, 2006 7:08 PM

Scoble is a massive loss because he had a legitimate voice that was not out-of-the-box self serving for Microsoft. For too long ( for ever?) Microsoft has been fixated on its market share at the expense of inventing what people want.
Take MS's "Spaces" as recent case in point. People who are not under their waning hypnotic glare have lost interest. Can the glare last for long? Hugh, your comparison with GM is spot on. Bring on Google spreadsheets and Writely.

MS may have asked what Scoble (or for that matter blogging) could do for Miscrosoft. But a more relevant question is - what could Microsoft do that is useful to the world, with blogging. "If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them." ( Thoreau) MS has built a foundation that no-one really wants. Watch them bleed and try to tax the world into maintaining them.

Posted by: John at June 17, 2006 7:44 PM

I tend to agree with Scott - Ozzie deserves a chance given his track record with innovative software like Notes and Groove. On the Scoble front, his departure is sad but frankly makes things more interesting. I've blogged about his legacy being that he's left us a canvas - the us being the 3000+ other bloggers at Microsoft who sometimes didn't get the voice that Robert did. Will someone float to the top to replace him - I hope not as it would be a poor imitation and mask the potential of many others to make MSFT more transparent. With respect to the party being over...that all depends on your perspective. Personally I think it may be just about to begin :)

Posted by: steve at June 17, 2006 8:05 PM

Microsoft needed a Scoble badly. It was meant to be, karma and destiny for Scoble and MS. Everything ends. But life continues to evolve and improve. Earning a dollar carries on too.

IMHO, MS will find a new voice to transisition the corporation away from a vulnerability they never had prior to Scoble nor really and completely understood while he was doing great work. MS found a staffer with a human voice who loved being in conversation with Microsoft users.

A new voice will come forth. But for how long?

I don't think that they will want this to carry on for too long. It reveals the corporation has a vulnerable white underbelly. Will Ozzie want to leave it exposed? Who knows?

Posted by: Robert at June 17, 2006 8:18 PM

Oh yes, a company making $1 billion profit per month equals party over. i think not.

Posted by: john at June 18, 2006 1:20 AM


Having been at Microsoft TechEd for the last week and interacting with some of the guys from Microsoft, I feel the company is in pretty safe hands.

Scoble is a good guy doing a good job but people leave their respective companies day in, day out. Bill's departure - albeit in two years time - is a far more fundamental upheaval; it will be interesting to see what happens.


Posted by: Ciaran Roarty at June 18, 2006 2:01 AM

john thinks not ??!! and says "Oh yes, a company making $1 billion profit per month equals party over. i think not." of course he's way wrong. The company's growth is over and its decline has begun. Party over John - the doors that way...

Posted by: James Thomson at June 18, 2006 11:19 AM

John - Nobody's denying that Microsoft earn a lot of money, but I think the point most other people here are trying to make is that perhaps Scoble and Gates are actually looking 5, 10, 20 years down the line and realising Microsoft may well hit a wall.
Like Hugh says, they need a BIG idea and they haven't got one!
Apple had the iPod, and some would say that could be a fantastic platform for them to move Macintoshes in the mid to long term.

Posted by: Rob McDougall at June 18, 2006 11:29 AM

I am no fan of Microsoft and never have been and I type this comment on a Mac. It's just incredibly simplistic to assert that Gates's leaving (which isn't happening until 2008 by the way) will automatically cause the extinction of the biggest software company in the world.

As has been pointed out above, founders leave their companies every day and they don't all collapse. On the other hand, most companies have a limited shelf-life, that's the nature of capitalism. So Microsoft's extinction is in some sense inevitable (perhaps it will be prompted by the rise of open source) but that won't be down to Gates's leaving.

Posted by: John at June 18, 2006 11:50 AM

I like Microsoft fine. Just about everybody I've met who works there I liked. As a result I wish mainly good things for their future.

That being said, I've also been asking "What's their big idea" for years, and so far have not received anything CLOSELY resembling an answer from them, except for "Let's sell more of we we've got".

When what you have is worth $50 billion, that might not be a bad idea, but it's not a "Big" idea.

Posted by: hugh macleod at June 18, 2006 12:45 PM

But guys, I said this before, you build on what you have. I used the new Vista that has been delayed. It is way more interactive and has many tabular functions just like 3D Studio Max or Alias Maya (these are 3D Modelling software). The interface for 3D Modelling products are very pretty and very very user friendly and that's what Vista was looking like. Imagine tabs falling from everywhere, big pretty buttons and 3D menus....it looks good. They have not run out of ideas they are just building on to what they originally had.

Posted by: tarun bhatia at June 18, 2006 8:54 PM

Hugh, we love you here in the USA, but you gotta know the only big idea Microsoft ever had was that they should get their big ideas from their competitors.

Posted by: Pinky Riordan at June 18, 2006 10:02 PM

I agree with some of the above in that I think Ozzie will go in a direction more beneficial for Microsoft ... if he can get Balmer to play along.

Posted by: Jim Benson at June 18, 2006 10:17 PM

While this blog post is likely to get a pop, I hope the readership here is no so thin to judge a company with 70,000 employees and nearly $45 Billion in revenue as being the result of just two people. Bill and Robert are both awesome, however, the company will move on to do great things.

Posted by: Etan at June 19, 2006 1:16 AM

Hugh, I have to agree with the other folks - it is hardly game over for Microsoft. There is just too much inertia behind Microsoft for a couple of departures to matter - regardless of who they are. EVERYONE is replaceable. I think Robert helped bring a new culture to Microsoft - over 3000 corporate bloggers exist at Microsoft - that number is growing. Ozzie is taking Gate's place and that is a good thing. I would hold off making the call that the game is over. Sort of like baseball here in the states, it can last forever.

Posted by: Alexander Muse at June 19, 2006 1:16 AM

"Micorosoft losing both Bill and Robert in the very same week."

Uhm, Bill Gates retirement is still 2 years away dude.

Posted by: bean at June 19, 2006 4:53 AM

"They opted to take that route because they have run out of ideas. They're at a time in their corporate life when they need a big idea. And you what? They. Simply. Don't. Have. One."

I laughed outloud when I read this.

This is one of the most clueless and uninformed statements I have ever heard about a company of ~70K of the worlds best, brightest, and most motivated geeks on the planet, many of whom are beyond brilliant.

Perhaps this noisy level of radical misinformation is actually good for Microsoft and Microsoft people, mostly because those who choose to blindly believe this nonsense will (again) under-estimate what is coming from MS over the next decade.

Big ideas are easy and obvious. Executing on big ideas takes decades, maturity, patience, and the creative ability to transform today's alleged bad news into tomorrow's opportunity.

How many times has MS been under-estimated in the past?

My view is that attrition, even for the likes of Bill and Robert, is absolutely healthy and not a sign that anything is 'wrong' or 'going down.' Both Bill and Robert are going on to other work that may enrich the world.

And they are leaving behind a large team of creative, driven, and capable folks. Please, keep spreading the rumor that MS is doomed. It will make the coming transformation even more unbelievable.

* * *

Posted by: Steve Ball at June 19, 2006 6:13 AM

Nice rant, Steve Ball. Some good points.

But I'm still none the wiser what MS's "big idea" is... and it certainly isn't expressed by the x-zillion dollar global advertising campaign they've got going.


Posted by: hugh macleod at June 19, 2006 11:42 AM

"The interface for 3D Modelling products are very pretty and very very user friendly"

I'm a 3D graphic artist (I suspect you're not): I'm telling you, dude, the interface on 3D graphic packages SUCK, big time. They're horrible, and the only reason anyone uses them, is because they have to (realistic, animatable human hair just doesn't come out of spreadsheet packages, unfortunately - and until it does, we'll be stuck with these dreadful, brightly colored $3K-per-license applications).

They're ugy, awkward to use and counterintuitive until you've learnt them. Going from one to another and back again is one of my major daily gripes, as I have to reprogram my brain to do things the "3Ds Max" way, form how you do it in Maya...

In any case, this is an operating system, we're talking about here: the user is trying to open a spreadsheet or read their email. They're NOT trying to produce realistic, animaable human hair.

And DON'T try to get me to imagine building a render farm with Vista machines. In my industry, you don't pay a thousand dollars for a graphics card because you want to look at your windows sideways on.

Posted by: Daniel at June 19, 2006 12:39 PM

Quick rant #2.

How about this big idea:

your PC is a 'Powers of 10' microscope you can use to study every minute detail of any subject under the sun.

It is also the telescope you can use to discover and interact with every thought that has ever been thought, every book, lecture, class, picture, film, play, brainstorm, equation, contradiction, emotion, song, performance, conversation, idea, person, character, genius, and idiot who opts in to participate in the globally connected collective consciousness.

The PC is also our primary local interactive connection to global context (physical, social, political, emotional, spiritual) in the universe.

Today's tools and interfaces are extremely primitive. If you think of Vista as MS-DOS, then image what lies ahead when we get to the next 'Vista' ten years from now.

We're exchanging primitive and random bits of ascii and you think 'we're done'?

These boxes give us the power to share and distribute experiences and broadcast intelligence (and stupidity) in ways we have only just begun to imagine.

Love to see this vision drawn on the back of a business card. Please, keep up the great work, Hugh.

* * *

Posted by: Steve Ball at June 19, 2006 5:04 PM

microsoft is in desperate need of change. and meaningful change comes from without - not within.

gates' leaving is a chance to start that change. ray ozzie came from the outside. is he the man to make it happen? imho, his background is all wrong for the future of software. but he might already know that and be able to steer the company in the right direction by picking people with the right skills and background. we'll see.

as for scoble - he's a scribe, not a change agent. he did a pretty decent job of documenting parts of the beast, but that's all he could do. too bad he won't be around to document the next phase of msft, but that's the way it goes.

so who will fill scoble's role? nuther big q. kennedy might be the man, be he'll need to change, too.

yes - interesting times.

Posted by: mamund at June 19, 2006 6:08 PM

"Quick rant #2.

How about this big idea:"

How about putting the pipe down? Someone paid for you to go to TechEd, and yet you can spout this kind of vague, fluffy evangelism?

"If you think of Vista as MS-DOS, then image what lies ahead when we get to the next 'Vista' ten years from now."

We'll need to keep our computers in the deep freeze, before they can run cool enough to use, without melting, yes. Thank you for that bulletin from the land of Nod, Steve.

Posted by: Daniel at June 21, 2006 11:58 AM

Check this out!

Posted by: Chris_et at June 13, 2007 11:28 AM