It’s been trendy for the past few years to harp on Microsoft and its many failings – last year’s temporary hype blip notwithstanding – but it looks like things have progressed well beyond that. It’s becoming increasingly clear that there is something really wrong with the company.
Last year was a big one for the Redmond-based software giant, with major relaunches of its ubiquitous computer operating system, mobile phone platform and, for the first time, its own computers in the form of tablets. A few months into 2013, it’s looking like none of those efforts have really turned out.
Windows 8, the company’s bread and butter, didn’t exactly set the world afire upon its debut last fall. The New York Times was considering it a flop as far back as December, with more recent analyses seconding that. The operating system’s uptake slowed for a third straight month in February, meaning Windows 8 has zero momentum behind it.
In phones, even the most positively spun stories can’t help but point out that Microsoft’s ascension to the number three position in smartphones in many countries has come largely because of the decline of BlackBerry. When you’re number three simply because you showed up to the race while other competitors were busy imploding, well… that’s not exactly a good sign. And now that BlackBerry is actually putting out new devices again, how long will Windows’ sort-of momentum hold? Moreover, the bigger question surrounding both is how long will new phone buyers continue to shell out for devices that don’t do nearly as much as those from Apple and Android?
Turning to tablets, it would actually be charitable to call Microsoft’s first endeavour – the Surface RT – a flop. Indeed, the term “mega-flop” has been bandied about, with low sales combining with high return rates making the RT the worst-received tablet since the original BlackBerry PlayBook. Other Windows vendors are slashing prices on their own RT tablets in an effort to move them, but who knows if that’ll work.
What about the Surface Pro, Microsoft’s second, recently released, higher-powered Windows 8 tablet? The company hasn’t announced sales numbers but estimates in mid-March pegged it at selling about 400,000 units, or short of predictions. There was also the sell-out controversy, where critics charged that Microsoft had artificially sold out the device’s inventory by producing only a small amount. As some Apple watchers humourously put it, the Surface Pro may have sold out, but so did the Zune back in 2009.
That brings us to what is perhaps Microsoft’s most successful business, or at least the only one with any real positive momentum: the Xbox. The company can’t seem to steer clear of controversy here either, with Microsoft Studios creative director Adam Orth recently sticking his virtual foot in his virtual mouth with a Twitter tirade about always-on games. The next Xbox, which could potentially be unveiled in May, has long been rumoured to require a constant broadband connection for games to work on it, which is a potentiality Orth contributed to by mocking complaining gamers and rural residents (who can’t get broadband). The company even had to go so far as to apologize for his comments.
Now, the latest sign that something is really wrong with Microsoft – and Xbox – is explained by a solid Wired feature about how independent developers are fleeing the platform to the warmer confines of Sony and its PlayStation. With the likes of Journey, Retro City Rampage and the just released Guacamelee! (from Toronto’s Drinkbox Studios) exploding in popularity, indie games are quickly becoming a strong differentiator for console makers, a fact that Sony seems to have realized but that Microsoft doesn’t seem to care about. As the story puts it:
Indies were once a fringe group of rogue developers who were often happy to get any sort of attention from a console manufacturer like Sony or Microsoft, but today they’re an industry force that will help shape the next generation of games and gaming machines.
It’s hard to read this account of indie developers’ mistreatment at the hands of Microsoft and not get a sense of arrogance from the company, which seems to backed up by the likes of Orth in his attitude toward gamers.
The fate of the company may indeed come down to that one simple decision, of whether or not to force broadband connections on all next-generation-console games. With a gamer revolt likely to result, Microsoft’s last good business could be dealt a deadly blow. With all the other failures circling, where will that leave the company?