Global CIO: Steve Jobs Is Bugs Bunny But Microsoft Is Elmer Fudd

Windows 7 is nice, Bing is neat, Sharepoint is solid, and Azure is promising. But does Microsoft scare the crap out of any of its competitors anymore?

Bob Evans, Contributor

December 8, 2009

6 Min Read

Quick--when was the last time Microsoft dazzled you with breakthrough thinking and agenda-setting innovation?

What was the last Microsoft product you couldn't wait to get your hands on, that would make a huge impact on your enterprise?

When you and your team put together your list of Five IT Vendors We Can't Live Without, does Microsoft still make the cut?

Now consider Steve Jobs and Apple:

They took on the incredibly hidebound and entrenched music industry and blew it to pieces with the truly historic iPod and iTunes.

Then they leveraged that iPod distribution model and revolutionized how people think about apps, how people create apps, how people market and distribute apps, and how people consume apps.

And they have exerted a profound and global impact on all manner of products and services as thousands of other companies have picked up on Apple's core philosophies of engaging customers as co-creators of value and ideas, of seeing the world through the eyes and desires of customers instead of purely through the lens of least-cost manufacturing.

I think a lot of companies fear Apple, and they fear it not because of its financial might (though it is vast), nor because of its brilliant suite of products (though it is intimidating), nor because of its marketing (though it is outstanding).

No, I think lots of companies inside and outside the tech business fear Apple because it is the ultimate disrupter and the crusher of the status quo. It is the blazing, roadkill-making thing in the night those companies fear they will never see coming, either through the windshield or in the rearview mirror.

They fear the magic of Steve Jobs and Apple. They fear Jobs' cunning and daring, his audacious and relentless refusal to play by the rules that trap so many other companies in the killing box of predictability, his willingness to blast head-on into so-called untouchables like digital-rights management, and his steadfast contempt for the average, the good-enough, the expected.

Those companies--most companies--want things to be predictable and comfortable. But Steve Jobs and Apple just don't do predictable and comfortable, and they make it harder and harder for others to do predictable and comfortable because the buying public--consumers and businesses alike--are becoming accustomed to having it their way instead of the seller's way.

A lot of companies used to fear Microsoft, too, and I'd be remiss if I failed to say that a fair number of the frightened were Microsoft's own customers!

But now? I'd say that for a lot of tech companies, the formerly frightened have split into two camps: one that regards Microsoft with a wary respect and awareness, along with some accommodation, and also a second and growing cadre of software companies that have flipped the fear-vector 180 degrees and have now become the hunter with Microsoft as the prey.

They see Microsoft as drifting toward fat and complacent, prone to bold talk but tepid action, and increasingly satisfied with being a not-so-fast follower instead of the brash and aggressive embracer of high-risk strategies and approaches that enabled Microsoft to dominate markets by sheer dint of its unmatched will and its sometimes-brutal assault on any and all obstacles between it and the top spot.

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As my colleague and Microsoft expert Paul McDougall wrote almost two years ago about the danger to Microsoft in acquiring Yahoo, "The fact is, Microsoft reached its zenith at a time when PC buyers had little choice but to purchase a Windows-based machine. The culture of monopoly born of that still infuses most of the company's offerings today, even in markets where buyers have lots to choose from."

What happened? How did Steve Jobs and Apple slip so smoothly into the slick and indomitable Bugs Bunny while Microsoft let itself become the tongue-tied and bumbling Elmer Fudd whose aggression seems maxed out in merely asking where oh where has that wacky wabbit gone? Here's the big problem Microsoft faces: There was a time when Microsoft dreamed very big dreams--and then made them come true. Back when Microsoft's top databases were strained to their outer limits in handling 10,000 transactions per hour (1996), Bill Gates rocked the Microsoft world but good when he went all in and said the new target for SQLserver was 1 billion transactions per day, or 40 million per hour.

Quite a stretch: 10,000 transactions per hour to 40 million per hour. But that was typical of Microsoft, and typical of Bill Gates: the very type of audacity Steve Jobs currently embodies at Apple, although each man expressed his technological vision and sense of elegance in very different ways. What Jobs and Microsoft lacked in pure technological wizardry, they more than made up for in business savvy and marketing prowess.

Where is that unforgettable Microsoft fire now? Where's the audacity, the ruthless wagers, the bone-chilling certainty and will, the refusal to be anything but the leader among a big field of big alpha dogs?

Because while that approach created lots of enemies for Microsoft, it also created a whole lot more admirers, investors, customers, and partners. The greatest code in the world? Heck no. Bugs only an exterminator could love? You bet. And there sure were a lot of howls when Microsoft--quite brilliantly, in my opinion--enlisted its beta-testers and customers in debugging new releases.

The Gates-haters called it shameless exploitation, but today we call it customer engagement and value co-creation. Leaders lead.

When legendary car-maker Bob Lutz joined GM, the story goes that one of his first actions was to visit the design teams and ask them, "Are you proud of the cars you're designing?" And the answer from one and all was "No."

I know what the answer to that question would be at Apple. I'm not sure what the answer would be at Microsoft. And I would suggest that there is nothing more important for Steve Ballmer to address than his company's seeming acceptance of what it has become: a very big, very efficient, and very predictable company that hasn't dazzled anyone in almost a decade.

I hope Steve Ballmer figures out a way to get Microsoft out of its Elmer Fudd stage because the tech business is overloaded with Elmer Fudds. What we need is more of what Apple embodies, and of what Microsoft used to be, and what Google shows flashes of: we need more Bugs Bunnies, and a lot fewer Elmer Fudds.

About the Author(s)

Bob Evans


Bob Evans is senior VP, communications, for Oracle Corp. He is a former InformationWeek editor.

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