That reek of desperation wafting out of Seattle today is emanating from Microsoft’s corporate offices as it tries yet again to reboot and stay relevant.
Not content to sit like a dragon counting its prodigious haul of cash year after year or even to simply focus on refining the products people actually like or need (Xbox and Word, respectively), Microsoft is reinventing itself. Excitable CEO Steve Ballmer issued a new memo outlining how the company is preparing (yet again) for the new age of technology. With this new reboot and attempt to stay relevant, Microsoft has officially become the Jerry Seinfeld of technology companies.
Just as Seinfeld dominated TV in the golden age of sitcoms of the 1990s, Microsoft dominated the PC-software market in the golden age of PCs in the 1990s. Both still reap massive financial benefits to this day: Seinfeld through syndication and Microsoft through continuing to sell the software that powers desktop and laptop computers. Seinfeld invests time and effort to stay relevant in new media, with The Marriage Ref (reality TV!) and Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee (Web video—but though the studio says the series has 10 million total unique viewers, I don’t know of any 20-somethings who watch it). Just so, Microsoft continues to invest time and effort to stay relevant in new media: search, devices, games, media. To further the connection, Seinfeld was the face of one of Microsoft’s most iconic blunders, Windows Vista.
So back to the memo. As The New York Times reported, Microsoft will attempt to streamline its multiple divisions and look to service users by focusing “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.” (Which sounds suspiciously like what Microsoft has been trying to do.)
As motivational efforts go, this memo certainly pales in comparison to Ballmer’s legendarily manic “I love this company” video. Indeed, the Ballmer who emerges in this memo is much more sedate. In the section of the document titled “Serious Fun,” Ballmer notes that Microsoft could empower people to “play solitaire, spend three minutes on a word game or surf the TV.” Yep, you really can’t tear those kids away from the New York Times crossword puzzle.
This is the latest in a long series of efforts to reboot, reinvigorate, and rebrand the company. Microsoft has had notable successes building the Xbox business and not bungling the acquisition of Skype. But it has long lost money on Internet content (MSN) and has failed to shake up the smartphone market with its Windows Phone and Surface tablet. As for search, well, Bing doesn’t pose much of a threat to Google.
By and large, Microsoft is still reliant on the products that powered its profits 10 years ago: software and computer operating systems. Which may be why, as the chart below shows, the company’s stock is pretty much where it was 10 years ago.