Steve Ballmer, the soon-to-be-ex Microsoft CEO, has been garnering quite a bit of press from his declaration before an audience of analysts that Google is a monopoly and that Microsoft is the only David left standing up to this Goliath. ‘”They have this incredible, amazing, dare I say monopoly that we are the only person left on the planet trying to compete with,” he remarked, and added that Microsoft had already reported the issue to U.S. competition authorities.

In the area of search, he’s probably correct, at least in the U.S. But why was Microsoft in search in the first place? Microsoft’s core business has always been software, and specifically, operating systems. And yes, the connected OS has become essential in today’s always-online environment – one reason, incidentally, why Android has been able to ramp its market share up and up. But search is never what Microsoft was about. And if Google has been able to grow so many other assets off the solid core of its primary business, well so has Microsoft (XBox? all the neat Microsoft-branded hardware, including the Surface tablets?)

Microsoft’s problem, I feel, is that it has got its core business wrong – repeatedly. It upset vast numbers of users and miss a major life cycle opportunity with the Windows Vista fiasco. It looks to have done almost as badly with Windows 8. Its mobile partnership with Nokia seems to have ended up with it buying the other most conspicuous lame duck on the reservation.

My top-of-head view of Microsoft is that it too early became balkanized into competing fiefdoms that held it back from developing the technologies that could have given it a commanding lead in the new mobile connected environment. Internal opposition from its Microsoft Office group apparently killed its early lead in handwriting recognition, and with it the chance to corner the tablet space. Similarly, Microsoft Reader withered on the vine. And above all, the focus on relentless upgrades and feature bloat to try and match the hardware economics of Moore’s Law with similar progress in software kept Microsoft from developing away from the desktop in the small mobile and portable, lower-power space that turned out to be the future – and where, incidentally, Intel, the Burke to its software Hare, has done just fine.

The lessons to consumers ought to be clear: Don’t buy anything from Microsoft. Or more specifically, don’t buy anything that you will want to still have with you in a few years time and which is entirely dependent on Microsoft’s own-brand tech. The company simply cannot offer consistent enough, properly curated future-proofing to make it worthwhile investing your money in their assets. Readers who bought Microsoft Reader books have already learned that lesson. And as for Ballmer’s monopoly warning: Well, the negative monopoly created when your competitor is too cack-handed to do their job may not be that glorious, but I doubt it’s such a matter for the regulators.

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Paul St John Mackintosh is a British poet, writer of dark fiction, and media pro with a love of e-reading. His gadgets range from a $50 Kindle Fire to his trusty Vodafone Smart Grand 6. Paul was educated at public school and Trinity College, Cambridge, but modern technology saved him from the Hugh Grant trap. His acclaimed first poetry collection, The Golden Age, was published in 1997, and reissued on Kindle in 2013, and his second poetry collection, The Musical Box of Wonders, was published in 2011.


  1. Quote: “But why was Microsoft in search in the first place? ”

    When I lived in Seattle, someone with Microsoft’s Bing team told me why. At an internal meeting, one of Microsoft’s top executives discovered that Google search was so widely used that “google” had become a generic term for online searching. Jealous of that success, I was told, he decided that Microsoft would challenge Google’s dominance.

    That hasn’t worked out well.

    I would add that, having know quite a few Microsoft employees, I would point out that that’s a major divide in the company between the average employee, who’s quite normal, almost boringly so, and the upper management, which is driven by a heavily Darwinian, kill-or-be-killed world view.

    The result isn’t just money-wasting attempts to beat Google at search, it’s all those internal fiefdoms where success for one company division is seen as the failure of another.

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