Archive for May, 2010

Side Effects of Competition: Muddled Choices & Feature Creep

Most regulators work on the premise that the more there is competition in the market place, the better choices and better quality there are for clients. That notion has been going through my mind for the last couple of days as having too much choice can be debilitating. From a basic consideration, more choices ultimately does lead the manufacturer/provider to try to differentiate his product/service from his competitors so in the end the end users benefit. However, the struggle to improve the product is shared across all the competitors in the industry so it is reasonable to expect that all products that target the same space would sooner or later reach the status of being good enough for the customer.

It is at this point then that quality parity causes choice to become more of a big problem for customers than a blessing. Such a scenario is currently playing out with smart phones – the staggering number of operating systems is simply amazing. Most of the increasingly leading platforms – iPhone and Android – are adding significant features with every release. It is too early to proclaim Smartphone operating systems mature so it goes beyond copying what a competitor has implement but instead implementing features that make the operating system better at serving end users’  needs. On a feature for feature basis, there isn’t enough difference between an iPhone and Android device.

Sure, the iPhone has a more comprehensive support structure around with the iTunes and the content therein but then again such a support infrastructure is being setup around Android and almost every player in the mobile phone industry wants to have an app store.

The Android ecosystem interesting as it is virtually an attempt to replicate the Windows model on mobile devices – a single platform that is installed on hardware manufactured by different companies. If this analogy is taken further, you will note that on a purely functional basis in, there is not much difference between a Dell, Toshiba, HP, Acer etc laptops or desktops. So far the analogy has not played out that way since Google’s Nexus One didn’t do so well in the market while the Motorola Droid is by the far the most successful Android device so far with regard to the number of units sold.

Another side effect of competition is increased feature creep which ultimately makes a product remarkably more complicated by deluding its raison d’être. A good example in this instance would be Microsoft Office. Think of Microsoft Office 2003 which had the old school menu systems. In an application like Word, there is an incredible wealth of features and capabilities hidden in those menus and few people can reach to them quite easily. In my experience, I have come across word documents that have a table of contends that was constructed manually even though Microsoft Word has had the ability to automatically generate and keep a table of contends updated. However, because of feature creep more of the software’s capabilities are hidden from the user making their accessibility and continued use more complex even for easy task. Still on a related idea, the fact that reaching a feature needs the continued need to navigate a hierarchy of menus, means that the full power of the application is not made easily accessible for daily and repeated use.

Microsoft Office new ribbon interface was meant to bring more of the suite’s capabilities to the users’ attentions so as to enabled repeated and continued use of what the product offers. Has it worked? I am not convinced but in some ways it is an improvement over the old user interface.

In closing, the competition in Smartphone operating system need to be kept sane and focused on delivering real and effective benefits to users instead of just piling on the features which may eventually get in the way of a more enjoyable and productive use of the platform. I must admit that so far Apple seems to be working on this as a deliberate objective in the evolution of its operating system. On the hand, the fundamental model that the Android operating system follows makes it a tough sell to keep that level of focus and in the process ensure a more coherent platform experience for users, developers and network operators alike.

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Microsoft’s Reorg

I finally got around to reading my ever piling up list of unread RSS feeds and one of the items that caught my attention was the announced reorganization of Microsoft’s Entertainment and Devices division. Within the sprawling extend of Microsoft’s business units, these are the people responsible for endeavors like the Xbox, Xbox 360, Zune and of course the soon to be released Windows Phone 7. As some of the analysis that I have read points out, the reorganization comes before the launch of Windows Phone 7 and right after the cancellation of the Courier Project (Microsoft’s answer to Apple’s iPad). Speculations aside, the Entertainment & Devices has not had any undeniably successful product though as noted the Xbox, depending on your criteria for success, accounts for some notable success.

However, a reorganization at such a crucial moment also highlight a lack of consistent vision and/or committed course of action to deal with the increasingly powerful and market and mindshare steals by Apple and Google. It can’t be a question of resources because as it goes, Microsoft has the necessary resource base to put together a compelling challenge. My best estimate is that they don’t understand the market or perhaps they are not comfortable with the underdog position in which they are – more so after having had a head start in the smart phone market with Windows Mobile. Windows Phone 7 is largely seen as a reaction to the modern and buzz inspiring exploits of the Apple’s iPhone and Google’s Android.

This is something that is increasingly more common with Microsoft: the company comes across as less certain of its own ability to take up new challenges and proceed to score major victories in the process. It makes one wonder whatever happened to the spirit that landed them in court for bundling a browser into the operating system in order to response to the threat that Netscape represented. While such bundling was anti-competitive and indeed led to Microsoft being declared a monopoly, their legal troubles seems to have had far reaching side effects than just reigning in their bad business practices.

It can’t all be blamed on their tussles with regulator since it is equally plausible that the current leadership of the company is no longer equally driven as compared to when the company was still starting – with everything to prove and nothing to lose. This tends to happen when companies grow up from their startup roots since they have largely conquered their competition and consolidated on two or three cash cows.

In all of this, please make no mistake that Microsoft is still innovating and improving its products but these innovations and improvements tend to be more vertical in nature i.e. improvements in desktop operating systems and any of the myriad of server software that Microsoft makes. All in all, all these innovations are geared towards protecting their primary cash cows: Windows and Office. Any foray outside of Microsoft’s comfort zones has not produced any breakaway successes.

I remember having a conversation some years back about the fall of Microsoft: this is not yet another declaration of the coming demise of Microsoft as it would be obvious to anybody that Microsoft is an important fixture in the IT industry but it is a fixture that is increasingly losing the central focus as computing leads off to slightly more nuanced but consistent shift towards mobile and web (cloud) computing model. The real danger to Microsoft’s continued relevance is how well it can adopt to these shifts and maintained its central position going forward. It is not impossible to consider the possibility of a few strategic acquisitions to get them back into the game a la Oracle but I doubt Microsoft’s culture would successfully survive such a move.

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