Microsoft Has An Identity Crisis

Steve Ballmer Microsoft

Getty Images/Justin Sullivan

Set foot on Microsoft's campus and you're taken aback by what a large, thriving company it really is.

I was there a few weeks ago. The day before I visited the offices, a local described it as its own town more than an office complex. He was right.
There's over 120 buildings on its main campus and the adjoining area. It has its own transportation system. There's a full-blown shopping mall on the campus. There's a truly great cafe with more delicious food options in one building than most towns have on their main street. There were soccer games being played on the soccer fields at lunch time. Later in the afternoon, people were shooting hoops on the basketball courts. Offices are being refurbished to be more modern and more stylish.
And of course, people are doing exciting work at Microsoft. I was given access to see some really mind-blowing technology that the company is developing.
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Projects like Xbox's Kinect, which is motion tracking gaming, don't just come from thin air. It's the product of years and years of research, the kind that only a few companies can afford to invest in. Microsoft is one of those companies.

After seeing some of the technology (which was in an off-the-record setting so I can't go into detail) I was asked something to the effect of, "Now do you think Microsoft can't innovate?"

Personally, I never thought Microsoft couldn't innovate. I've always thought it was very good at building interesting technology. Where Microsoft has struggled is in bringing its technology to market. But, the overarching point about Microsoft remains. The company, despite being one of the richest, most powerful tech companies of all time, is generally underestimated and seen as a second-class citizen to companies like Apple, Google, Amazon, and even Facebook, by the tech elite.

For instance, Google Chairman Eric Schmidt said the fight for the next generation of technology is between Facebook, Apple, Amazon and Google. He intentionally left out Microsoft because, "They’re a well-run company, but they haven’t been able to bring state-of-the-art products into the fields we’re talking about."

Just a few years prior, when he was CEO of Google, Schmidt called Microsoft's Bing Google's biggest problem.

While I was at Microsoft, I was trying to figure out why it is that Microsoft disrespected so much.

A cheap-shot answer would be to say that it just copies what other tech companies do.

But guess what? Amazon is copying Apple's iPad with the Kindle Fire. Google is copied the iPhone with Android. Facebook copied Snapchat with Poke. Copying is a part of the tech business world.

Besides, Microsoft is actually leading in design. Its flat, simple user interface in Windows Phone and Windows 8 is being adopted (and refined) by Apple in its forthcoming iPhone software.
After thinking about it for a bit, I think I have an idea about why Microsoft is not given the respect it deserves.

Microsoft lacks, for lack of a better phrasing, a mission statement. This creates an identity crisis.

From the outside looking in, there doesn't appear to be a simple ethos that guides its decisions.

At Apple, CEO Tim Cook makes it plain what's important. He has said a variation of this quote many times since taking over: "The DNA of the company, the thing that makes our heart beat, is a maniacal focus on making the best products in the world. Not good products, or a lot of products, but the absolute best products in the world."

At Amazon, the company is all about the customer. One of its buildings is named after its first ever customer: Wainwright. I noticed it after just a half day at the company. It's clear in founder and CEO Jeff Bezos' letter to shareholders. In the first sentence, he says, "Our energy at Amazon comes from the desire to impress customers rather than the zeal to best competitors."

At Google, for the longest time, the mission was to organize the world's information. Lately, it's shifted towards doing big, technological products that can change the world, or as CEO Larry Page calls them, "moonshots."

Page doesn't have a neat, often repeated mantra like Tim Cook, but in a Wired interview, he summed up his thinking with this sentence: "I think we need to be doing breakthrough, non-incremental things across our whole business."

For Google, this moonshot technology focus explains why it does things like Gmail, Android, buying Motorola, self-driving cars, flying balloons in the air that beam out internet, and so on. It's because Page wants the company to do big, crazy stuff.

Now, compare those three to Microsoft. What is Microsoft's guiding vision? When Microsoft decides to attack, or pass, on a new market, what is the simple notion that guides its decisions?

I follow Microsoft as closely as any of the aforementioned companies, and I honestly can't figure out what guides its thinking.

This lack of a simple guiding ethos is what hurts Microsoft. It's hard for people on the outside to say, "Microsoft, they're the company that cares about X." (Whatever X might be.)
Steve Ballmer just had an opportunity to crystallize his vision for Microsoft. He reorganized the company, but in his long reorganization memo, it's difficult to parse out the guiding vision for the company.

At the start of the letter, he says, "This company has always had a big vision — to help people realize their full potential." And later he says, "Going forward, our strategy will focus on creating a family of devices and services for individuals and businesses that empower people around the globe at home, at work and on the go, for the activities they value most."

I suppose those are mission statements, but, "empower people around the globe" just feels flat and corporate. It doesn't have the same galvanizing force of "build the world's best products." And for a customer, it's not exactly easy to understand.

Part of the reason Microsoft struggles to nail a simple motto is that it's not a simple company. It competes in so many different business, and so many different markets. It's an enterprise company, it's a consumer company. And therefore anyone one slogan could be a bit squishy and difficult to really adhere to.

Still, I think it would be helpful for Microsoft's brand if it were able to have an easily digested, often repeated mantra. It would improve the company's focus, and people's opinion of what it does. If I was running Microsoft (and god help shareholders if that were the case) my slogan for Microsoft would be something like, "We make everyone's life better with new technology."

It's basically what Microsoft is doing, but it's just not articulating it very well.

Why is it doing the Surface? Because it wants to make your life better — you'll have more fun, you'll be more productive — on a sleek purpose-built tablet from Microsoft. Why do the Xbox One? To make life better through technology. Why invest so much in cloud computing? Because your work life (and home life) are going to be a lot better through technology.

Corporate mission statements can be hogwash. But they can also be smart simple statements to lead the company from the inside and from the outside.

Microsoft is a thriving, exciting company. You don't have to be on its campus to understand that this is the case. Microsoft just needs to simplify its explanation.