Microsoft is restructuring. That was one of the hot news items of the past two weeks. With that, came a flood of speculation as to what such a shake up could possibly mean. What was interesting to me was reading a recent interview with Steve Ballmer where he discussed "changing the culture" at Microsoft. And the new slogan for these imminent changes seems to hint at what Ballmer himself believes to be the primary problem. "One Microsoft" is the new slogan, and it would seem to imply that by their own admission, Microsoft has not been unified up 'til now. Could this really be what has been ailing Bill Gates' baby? Possibly. But something in me feels that the real problems go deeper than lack of synergy.

Where Did Things Go Wrong?


For anyone who has followed my blogs with any regularity, I'm sure they would probably get the impression that I hate Microsoft. Actually, nothing could be further from the truth. I have a lot of love for Microsoft. Some of my fondest memories with both PC's and gaming in general would not have been possible without Microsoft, which is why I get so upset when I see them doing things that seem, well... dumb.

My first introduction to Microsoft was a 486DX2 running at 66Mhz with 4mb of Ram, and a single speed cd-rom drive. It had Windows 3.1 and DOS 6.2. Believe it or not, back then, that was actually a decent system. Prior to that, I had primarily used Macs, as that was what was most common in the schools I attended. To me, I loved what seemed like the endless learning curve and possibilities for tinkering that both Windows and DOS allowed. I actually got a kick out of going into DOS to edit my config.sys files and making boot disks to get various games to run. Those things helped me to learn the ins and outs of how computers work. Many things I learned were the result of making countless mistakes and spending hours trying to fix them.

But through it all, what I always loved about those times is that you were allowed to explore, to make changes, to customize. Windows and DOS together seemed like one big digital playground to me, and I wasn't even remotely as knowledgable as some kids I knew. When Windows '95 launched, Microsoft simply solidified their place in most people's minds as the only OS worth having, except for Apple devotees. And Linux had nowhere near the presence it has today. Linux was some oddball little piece of software that only the most hardcore of nerds bothered with. At least that's how many perceived it.

But Windows... seemed to gradually just get better and better. Even up to Windows '98, though there were always the minor complaints here and there, most people had grown to love the ease of use and openness of Windows. There were some major hiccups with Windows ME, but that ended with Windows XP. Openness was always a big part of what Microsoft got right and did best. To provide a great product, then get out of the way of the end user.

Introducing Microsoft as... Rocky Balboa

Much like Rocky, Microsoft was the underdog... and they won.


Who would have guessed that Microsoft had their sights set on the console gaming scene? Many were the voices that predicted Microsoft would fail because they simply didn't understand the business. The voices were wrong.

Somehow, Microsoft came out of their corner swinging HARD. Halo was nothing short of a juggernaut for the Redmond based software giant. And though the first generation of Xbox titles had some real stinkers, what worked greatly in Microsoft's favor was a silent determination, and a willingness to learn, and adapt. What Microsoft achieved in the course of one console generation is nothing short of legendary considering that they had never, ever been in that business before.

It's no wonder at all that the Xbox 360 has been the success it has. Ironically, even as Windows faltered with quality issues and struggled to maintain it's dominance, the Xbox franchise only grew stronger. Xbox Live was basically a printing press for money, and despite the PS3's claims of being more powerful, consumers didn't really seem to care. Several years of rock solid exclusives and overall great software easily made the 360 the most popular console of it's generation.

But what impressed me the most about Microsoft was their willingness to take a tremendous financial hit to address and correct the RROD scandal that plagued the Xbox 360. While they were perfectly capable of denying the problem existed, or of the need to fix it, Microsoft did the right thing by owning up to the issue, and pledging to fix it. That alone made me feel the Xbox 360 was the console to own. How often do you see that kind of goodwill shown by a corporation as large as Microsoft nowadays?

But, it seems that nothing good ever lasts for too long, because something definitely changed with the big M. As Apple has muscled it's way into the technological spotlight with it's iOS devices, and new competitor's like Google emerged, Microsoft's reaction to these changes seemed more like panic than anything else. With Windows, the past decade has been a bumpy ride of success and failure. Microsoft's foray into the mobile market has been met with a rather tepid response. And now, even as Microsoft plans the arrival of their next console, the Xbox One, they have struggled with execution, and messaging

To be fair, I am highly pleased and impressed with Microsoft's reversal of their stance on DRM. Regardless of what the pro-DRM crowd may say, I believe Microsoft will fare far better taking an open and non-restrictive stance on used games and console functions. Openness is what made me like Microsoft to begin with. I think that is the spirit that Bill Gates always had when he ran the company, and I think that it's one that works. The future of technology should open doors, not barricade them with dead bolts and chain locks.

A New Hope?


So when I consider the new strategy being employed by Steve Ballmer to remake Microsoft, I once again have to ask, is it just a culture problem? No. I think it's also an identity problem. In fact, I would argue that you can't build a culture without a solid identity in place first. What is Microsoft today? What do they stand for? What do they want to be known for? Their has to be more to their strategy than focusing on shoehorning their way into every tech trend that comes along.

I can quickly sum up what always made Microsoft great in the first place. Once upon a time, Microsoft was fun, easy and open. Now, they seem a bit boring, overly complicated and restrictive. And, Ballmer is right too. Clearly there is confusion and lack of unity at Microsoft. The poor messaging and communication at this year's E3 was proof of that. But, I don't know if Steve Ballmer is the right man to turn Microsoft around. Especially if he was the brains behind the once-proposed DRM schemes.

In 2005, the Xbox 360 seemed like such an easy choice. That's what good products usually do. Without a lot of thinking being involved, a good product convinces you that it is absolutely worth the purchase. The benefits are clear, and the risks/negatives are negligible. People do still trust the Microsoft brand, and there are few companies in the world who have better recognition. Microsoft has to capitalize on that and remind consumers why they love the brand. If they do that, Microsoft's "culture problem" will take care of itself.