The Conquest That Wasn’t

I was reading John Gruber’s piece this morning entitled Microsoft’s Long, Slow Decline, when a remark of his stood out to me [emphasis mine]:

If Microsoft were a healthy, functional, competitive company willing and able to honestly assess its own shortcomings — like the Microsoft of the ’90s that conquered the entire industry — their goal would have been to make something not just better than Vista, but better than anything else on the market, including Mac OS X.

It stood out to me because I actually quite disagree with the emphasized part, that Microsoft “conquered the entire industry”. I’ll break this down a little.

Clearly, Microsoft has dominated the industry with its massive peak of 92% market share in an industry they helped create. But the word “conquered” implies a glorious victory reminiscent of historic figures like Julius Caesar or Genghis Khan—names which I simply cannot compare Microsoft (or Gates & Ballmer) to.

So it’s the word “conquered” specifically I disagree with. Not because I have such high esteem of the meaning of the word itself, but because I consider Microsoft to have not so much conquered the PC industry as they have simply stumbled upon owning it, reminiscent more of the way Inspector Clouseau successfully solved mysteries.

What I’m saying is that Microsoft’s success is less to do with their great business savvy or ability to create good products, and more to do with how the market they created and sold to didn’t know what it was getting. To explain this further, I’m not going to dive into market numbers, statistics and analysis reports—too many of such reports have been written already over the past decades. Instead, what I’m going to do is look at the the people themselves that became Microsoft’s customers.

The psychological angle

Curiously, no market analyst ever seemed to have taken into account the psychological reasons behind why people bought Windows PCs by the truckloads in the ’90s. They have explored it, to some extent, by analyzing the boom of the PC industry as a whole and looking at its origins, then rehashing the usual spiel: During the (late) ’80s and early ’90s, computers became very powerful tools in doing a lot of tasks that previously were done with pen and paper, snail mail and much mucking about and waiting patiently for things to happen. The computer revolution changed that, and by proxy it changed households by introducing a computer into each and every one of them.

But needing a computer at home to do work on is not a psychological reason, nor one that explains why they’d choose a Windows PC. It only explains why they bought a computer, of whatever kind it was. And that’s where the psychological analysis seems to have stopped, crucially ignoring why so many people wound up with a Windows PC instead of a Mac.

Microsoft’s best trick was how they made their business deals. During the early ’90s, if you walked into a computer store there was a very high probability that you would be greeted with a lot of computers by a lot of vendors, but all of them ran either MS DOS, Windows 3.11 or Windows ’95, depending on the year. It wasn’t so much a matter of them having a larger market share, but their business tactic in selling their Operating Systems to all hardware vendors meant that they completely dominated the mindshare market.

Unless you already knew enough about the Mac, Linux or NeXT platforms, you were most likely going to have a Microsoft-made OS on your computer. It wasn’t even a question, in most cases. The questions you’d be asked then by store clerks were predominantly along the lines of budget, hardware-specific needs and whether you liked brown, grey or black better for your casing.

So what does this have to do with psychology and the computer buyers themselves? Well, it’s all about understanding. Back in those days, most people buying a computer were buying their very first computer, ever. They had little or no understanding of computers, of User Interfaces or usability. Most of them didn’t even know how to use or hold a mouse, and typing was commonly done with two index fingers and a lot of hand movements.

They were much simpler times.

What that also meant was that quality and usability of the Operating System would not typically be a consideration people had when buying a PC. Why not? Because they wouldn’t have been able to distinguish between them, or tell you why one OS was better than the other. Compare it to this similar but purely hypothetical example:

Take a Nikon Coolpix P90 camera, which sells for roughly $400, and a Nikon D700 that sells for about $3000. Now find someone—preferably in a less technology-dominated area or country—who has never used a photo camera in their life and ask them which they would buy if they wanted to take pictures of things. You are not fronting or giving them money, and it’s not an “if you were rich and could afford anything you want” kind of scenario. Simply a real potential customer who has never used a camera before, and now has to spend their own hard-earned money to buy one.

It should not be hard to imagine that almost everyone would go for the far cheaper Nikon Coolpix P90. To them, both cameras simply “take pictures” and they wouldn’t be able to tell you much difference in the results of each camera’s photos either. These aren’t people who have a firm grasp of photo quality or camera usability. These are people who are simply presented with two devices that take photos, and one of them costs over seven times as much as the other.

Furthermore—and this is a very important detail—these are people whose lives do not revolve much at all around whichever camera they wind up getting, so the choice of product is of small significance to them. It is simply a tool to get something done with, but they are—obviously—not photographers whose lives revolve around a camera.

The same scenario has played out in the PC industry, where people buying a computer had no grasp of what Usability means, and the consideration for an Operating System was nowhere near as significant as the consideration over spending a lot of money on some brand new piece of technology. Back then, the value of a computer in a household was hard to measure because most people had never had one at home before, but the value of money itself was something they’re all too familiar with.

Change arrived long before Obama did

In the early 2000s, the nature of the PC industry finally began to change. People were now buying their second or even third computer, and they had become much more comfortable with a computer than they were before. In addition to that, the computer now also started to play a bigger and bigger role in their everyday lives and its perceived value as a piece of technology was much more significant than it was five to ten years earlier. People were no longer simply writing letters or balancing their checkbooks on the computer; instead, they were using it to surf the Web, play games, use a variety of productivity applications and even dabble with a digital lifestyle—photos, music and video all on the computer.

As things changed for customers, so, too, did the customers change themselves. Slowly but surely, people started to understand why certain things about their computer were frustrating them or causing them stress, and that understanding led to a perceptible awareness of usability.

In the years following, “post-PC” devices like digital cameras and MP3 players became more widely used and where things worked, life was great—but on Windows, more often than not life was not so great. The multitude of problems people had with printers and printer drivers, with cameras and music players that all had their own crappy software with confusing UI, all started to add up to a very conscious amount of unhappiness.

And then you used your friend’s iPod.

Or something similar, of course, but I’m going for dramatic effect here. Apple’s masterful execution of the iPod and paired iTunes software, cultivating into a harmonizing user experience so elegant it had rarely ever been seen before, changed the game forever. Be it one’s first introduction to or experience with Mac OS X, the first iPod or even a number of software products on the Windows platform that were actually quite good, people were suddenly confronted with someone that wasn’t just new, but that they could actually tell was better. More importantly, they could explain why it was better, although they may not have been particularly articulate in doing so.

The seed of change was planted and in this new world, customers were actually able to distinguish between a good user experience and a bad one. And suddenly, Microsoft’s Windows didn’t really look all that appealing anymore.

Nevertheless, many people stuck around on the Windows platform, but now the reasons were no longer as simple as a mere comparison of price. One big reason that kept (and is keeping) people on Windows is the comfort zone rationale.

Comfort zone

For most people, stepping out of your own comfort zone is a scary thing to do. We typically like the things we’re familiar with, we like how things are because when we don’t, we’ll consider changing them until we like them again. Stepping out of this comfort zone means stepping into the unknown, taking a leap of faith. This can be and is typically perceived—prior to the actual event—as a discomforting experience. It’s scary! So let’s not do it.

However, a comfort zone is built not just on your own habits, preferences and feelings, but also on your environment: the people you surround yourself with. And it is through these people that change begot more change.

If, among your friends and family, you are the first to step outside that comfort zone and do something different than before, it’s scary and takes a lot of courage and conviction. But, and this may negatively imply certain things about human beings, if you’re the twentieth person to do so, that leap of faith is a lot less intimidating. And slowly but surely, with the increasing popularity of the iPod and Mac and “it just works better” becoming a very common phrase in discussions about technology and computing, more and more people started switching to the Mac, away from Windows.

Stepping outside of a comfort zone therefore became increasingly less dramatic for people, and once they encountered a better user experience, one that they could coherently explain to be a better user experience, the new world quickly became the new comfort zone. A crucial detail, though: the new comfort zone was one of much greater satisfaction. Less frustrations, less headaches, and simply the act of having chosen something different and liking it all amounted to much greater happiness.

Microsoft, for their part, didn’t seem to understand in the slightest what was going on for all of these years in the minds of their customers. Apple, on the other hand, figured it out well enough to turn it into their advantage, and the longer Microsoft fails to understand this, the greater Apple’s advantage will become.

Money is blinding

Using another psychological analysis, it’s fairly easy to see why Microsoft’s executives just don’t get it: they’re sitting on a gigantic pile of money that’s, to this date, growing by the second. Self-criticism, honest and indiscriminate self-criticism, is difficult for anyone. You can try this on your own: how eager are you to tell yourself about all your shortcomings and then very thoroughly convince yourself that they are faults or mistakes? I’m willing to bet that it’s not easy for you, either. Now imagine that you’re among the richest people in the world, sitting on products that keep making you a lot of money, and running a company that has tremendous influence on an entire industry, if only through the fact that its products are used so pervasively that it’s hard to see them being replaced all around the world anytime soon.

Now try telling yourself you’re not doing it right.

But there’s still more to it than that. Let’s not forget that Microsoft, for all their business genius, never actually understood why people were buying their OS instead of any other option. They understood that cheaper is more appealing, but it never occurred to them that millions of customers were only getting a PC with Windows because they didn’t know any better.

Aside of apparently having accepted that Switchers—people who have abandoned the Windows platform and switched to the Mac—are not likely to come back, the upper echelons of Microsoft still seem unaware of why they got to the level of success that they did. Because, let’s face it: almost every effort of theirs has been painfully unsuccessful in capturing consumer’s hearts or minds. The Xbox 360, despite its serious problems, is one of the very few consumer products in Microsoft’s very long line-up that actually has a loyal, happy and sizable customer base. Of course, they first had to throw almost $6 Billion dollars at it to get to that point, but who’s counting? Their investors—the ones they still have—certainly don’t seem too concerned by that reckless spending.

So here we are. It’s 2009 and for the first time in forever, Microsoft’s revenue is in decline, having fallen short one full Billion dollars of projections. Another year of such revenue declines, and costly products like the Xbox 360 become a much more serious gamble for the behemoth. They’re still sitting on a huge pile of cash, of course, but it’s something that any smart investor should take into consideration nonetheless.

Revenue and profits aside, Microsoft is soon coming out with Windows 7, the new version of their OS that is currently sparking a lot of debate about this very issue. Already, though, there are signs that Microsoft still doesn’t really get it. Will Windows 7 buck the trend (of Microsoft’s line of Operating Systems)? Will it stop the masses from switching to the Mac? I don’t know. I’ve not used it yet myself, so I’m disinclined to make any strong predictions either way.

All I do know is that the last time I used a Microsoft product that gave me a happy and exciting user experience, I had never even seen a Mac.

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