Microsoft is one of the most recognisable and infamous companies of the modern era. Its flagship product, Microsoft Windows, in its various iterations starting from 3.1 back in the 80’s and sitting at Windows 8.1 today (Windows 10 very soon!) is the most universal operating system for personal computers in the world. Various other Microsoft products such as Microsoft Office are the most popular solutions in their respective fields, and its founder Bill Gates is one of the most well known innovators/billionaires/tech nerds in history.
In its heyday back in the 80’s and 90’s, Microsoft was highly touted for being the most revolutionary, innovative and creative force in the world of technology. Nowadays, having become a massively sized and profitable corporation, Microsoft is often criticised for lacking the very qualities that got it to where it is today. When you think “creative” and “innovative” today, you think Google or Facebook, definitely not Microsoft.
In light of this, it would definitely come as a surprise to many that Microsoft did indeed possess vision back in the day (apart from its illustrious beginnings of course). Many criticise Microsoft for wasting their position on top of the tech world in the 90’s and not anticipating the way technology would develop, thus allowing competitors such as Google and Apple to push Microsoft out of its top dog position. Microsoft produced some concept videos just before the turn of the millenium, in 1999 and 2000. These videos, published in online magazine Slate (part of Microsoft’s MSN online service from 1996), show that Microsoft did in fact anticipate much of the technological innovations of the last decade. If you watch the videos you can see that Microsoft foresaw advancements such as smartphones, tablets, voice recognition devices, cloud-based synced services across devices, and much more.
So what happened? From these videos it is clear that Microsoft at least had some idea of what was coming. How did they waste their near-monopoly market position and miss out on the massive market shares enjoyed by Apple and Google? A popular target for many tech commentators’ blame has been Steve Ballmer, Microsoft’s CEO since 2000. It is a common assumption to make that poor leadership is solely responsible for companies not performing as well as they should, but for a giant corporation such as Microsoft the answer is often not quite so simple. There are other factors in play such as increasing aversion to risk taking as the size of a company increases, due to shareholder accountability, corporate bureaucracy and so forth. If you look at the shift in the technology scene historically, dominant companies have not been able to extend their dominance to the next great technological innovation.