Whither Now, Microsoft?

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella has been circulating among the media recently, talking about his book, Hit Refresh: The Quest to Rediscover Microsoft's Soul and Imagine a Better Future for Everyone. My advice to Mr. Nadella is this: aim lower.

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In the excerpts I've read and in interviews, Nadella talks a lot about empathy and empowering people to better their own lives, and almost cosmic questions such as how to balance technological innovation against concerns for the workers that innovation may displace. Nadella sounds like a genuinely nice guy, and these are worthy considerations for anyone. But here's the thing: I just want Windows to work.

This past week, I wasted a lot of time trying to figure out what was pinning all the performance meters on my Windows 10 laptop, reducing it to a crawl. I won't go into the details, but then I don't have to. Everyone who has used computers has had experiences where things don't work at intended, or when a capability that a program could have is missing, or the interface is too confusing, or any number of other issues.

When I read that Nadella has all these big-picture issues in his head, I worry that he and others may be forgetting why most of us use technology to begin with: to get things done. Technology is largely a means to an end. Asking Siri or Cortana a plain-language question that automates into a search through the vast Web to find a particular page is gee-whiz technology, but in the end it's all just a warm-up for the main act, an act millennia old: reading text.

Microsoft has clearly been suffering from Apple envy, and with little wonder. Apple is making piles of money. Many Apple users are hard-core fans who are willing to pay a stiff premium for Apple products. And certainly, their CEO Tim Cook seems to be a nice guy who cares a lot about other people.

In the end, though, I think the reason so many people gravitate towards Apple is that their products work. They are elegantly designed, both in hardware and software, are easy to understand and use, and tend to give users less fuss than competing products. And if they do cause trouble, Apple will take care of you at an Apple store.

If Microsoft has dreams of being another Apple, I hope these dreams don't last long. The world already has an Apple and doesn't need Microsoft to become its pale imitator.

Microsoft, please: make great products. Give users back their choices. Stop introducing products and technologies and then abandoning them. Avoiding a Windows 10 update that creates havoc for multitudes of your users is a worthy goal, and unlike vague notions of empathy and human empowerment, it's a goal you can achieve and measure. 

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