Microsoft and the consumer space

Billions spent chasing the two market leaders that were so far ahead, there was no way that they could catch up.
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What’s now a scary number of years ago – fells like yesterday tbh – I used to write for the Guardian and then ZDNet about Microsoft’s effort to break into the consumer space. At the time, this was hard for me to do because I’d owed my entire career to Microsoft, and there was no way to write honestly about their effort and be kind. They were putting a lot of rubbish out there, and desperately trying to get people to care about Windows desktops again.

With today’s news that Microsoft was giving up on mobile solutions, much as I’m trying to avoid saying “I told you so”, for the sake of bringing those threads together for myself, I’m going to say it. “I told you so.”

No one agreed with me at the time. It was pretty aggravating. I gave up on writing about consumer stuff because I felt like Cassandra every time I sat down to blog.

Enough about me – why did Microsoft’s consumer efforts fail?

As I spend longer in this industry, I realise that it’s possible to get stuck in history in an unhelpful way. Everyone my age knows that Microsoft made Windows successful by catering to developers. The more software is available, the greater the network effect in attracting customers to the platform. So, when Microsoft tried to go over consumers, they did the same thing – try and get developers to build apps for consumers.

But it didn’t work this time, because although Microsoft’s position seems logical and it had been proven correct in the past, Apple and Google had already built the market up too far for this strategy to work. There was never going to be the mass of devices out there for developers to target, and no amount of first mover advantage was going to make up for that. Microsoft has managed to do untold damage to its developer community by making promises that were impractical to keep.

At the root of all of it, this time around Microsoft misunderstood the customer’s motivation. Back in the 1980s/1990s, the market was much smaller. And it was technology-led. People were buying computers because they were early adopters of “information technology”. In a classic technology adoption curve lifecycle we tend to think about platforms and products. IT itself has its own curve, which covers decades, not the usual “few years” that we think about when we consider such curves. The 1990s, when the Wintel alliance owned the world, the whole market was in the “innovators” space of IT generally. If you were buying technology, you were a geek. This means you understood what you were buying. When Microsoft stood up and spoke geek language to geek people, it was all easily “grokked”.

By the time we get to “mobile”, no one is a geek in a classic sense. The market for smartphones is “all humans”. People buy smartphones to access WhatsApp and Facebook, and such a customer only cares about making a simple decision. This more often than not, that means buying what everyone else is buying. It is much easier to buy something when we have seen someone that we trust “de-risk” the decision by doing it first.

This was the thing that Microsoft did not get. It was not a safe choice to choose Windows Phone/Windows Mobile. If you went into a shop and you were a normal consumer, you were never going to risk buying something that wasn’t iOS or Android (or even BlackBerry, formerly) because… why would you? Were your friends buying it? No. Did you know anyone who had one? No, you did not. Did you want to make a big risk and innovate and spend £50 a month on something that was useless, and have it be a millstone around your neck for 24 months? Also no.

(Even today people buy Windows and Office because they are safe choices.)

Microsoft’s consumer play failed because they just didn’t understand how far along the market was, or rather they didn’t understand the market had already en masse decided that there were already two players that were good enough – iOS and Android.

Next time then, what’s the trick? Don’t respond to being late by rushing in with a “me too” product that no one is ever going to care about. And don’t forget to profile your customers and understand their motivation.

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