I’ve been watching tech companies for well over a decade, and one thing that’s hard to overlook is how as soon as one company finds a green patch on the prairie, the others all try to horn in.
Almost all companies do it, but the dynamic between Microsoft and Apple is particularly interesting.
Over the past decade, the Redmond giant has followed the Cupertino giant into a variety of areas — media players, media stores, smartphones, app stores, physical stores — only for Microsoft to retreat when things didn’t work out.
The latest withdrawal comes in the form of Microsoft closing down most of its physical retail stores. But it’s the latest in a long list of examples where Microsoft threw in the towel — from binning its Zune media player, throwing the Kin phone onto the scrapheap, and dumping Windows Phone — following a failed attempt to compete against Apple.
And here I’m not including all the rebranding efforts that Microsoft has undertaken over the years, tweaking the names of products and services for, well, reasons.
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So, what is it that Microsoft lacks?
Microsoft makes some very good products. Apart from the ill-fated Kin project (which had the plug pulled on it after two months), Microsoft products and services are generally solid.
But it feels like Microsoft lacks something. A key component that’s critical in building and fostering ecosystems.
Windows Phone was a prime example of this lack of commitment.
There was a product that went through many iterations of tweaks and changes and revamps. It’s clear that Microsoft wanted to have a phone on the market because Apple (and Google) had one, but didn’t really know what it should look like, and it never stood still long enough to do anything other than burn early adopters. All that money spent on hardware and apps wasted.
In the process of trying to figure out what its phone should be, Microsoft had hemorrhaged it customers to iOS and Android.
I remember a similar mess back in the early days of buying digital content from Microsoft.
Anyone remember MSN Music?
Here was a landscape that was constantly in flux. I was never sure how it worked or where to find anything, and it just seemed simpler to buy a CD or go to iTunes.
Compare this to how consistent the Apple media purchasing experience has been over the years. I can still download and access content I purchased from Apple back in 2003.
Note: To be fair, here in the UK I can still access my MSN Music Downloads because the service is now handled by Nokia (I’m not how to, but I know the option is still there… somewhere), but the US operation shuttered years ago.
One of the reasons I made the transition to Apple is that Apple is committed to the products and services that it launches. iPhone. iPad. Mac. Even an underdog like the Apple Watch.
Support for these products has been steadfast and unwavering.
Even the hated iTunes stuck around for many years until Apple tweaked it to better fit in with the current landscape.
You can copy a lot of things, but you can’t copy commitment. And commitment matters.
I’m hoping that Microsoft is done with chasing Apple. There are things that the company does really well — Windows, Office, Azure, even the Surface hardware — and diluting these with wishful side-hustles is distracting and damaging.
There’s power in focus. While disruption is a very good thing, a scatter-gun, distracted, half-hearted approach hurts customers, who in turn go looking for companies that they can trust.