Microsoft, once dominant but now the underdog, seems to be in its own bubble
But that bubble does have cutting-edge innovation, as a Redmond tour shows
IT was a cold foggy and extremely early morning in Redmond, Washington when the shuttle carrying jetlagged journalists pulled up at the first stop in what was to be a two-day tour of the command centre of the Microsoft empire.
Dubbed the ‘Underground Tour’ (a nod to Seattle’s infamous Underground Tour), it was an initiative that Microsoft Corp began over two years ago in an attempt to offer members of the press from around the world better insights into one of the largest technology companies in the world.
The company was kind enough to extend an invitation to Digital News Asia (DNA) and I found myself that crisp March morning alongside peers from Europe, Israel, Indonesia and Canada trying to fend off sleep as we were shuffled into the first briefing of the day.
So what insights or discoveries did I uncover from this supervised, almost-all-access expedition?
Well, I found myself nodding as I watched demonstrations of how seamless and “awesome” things could be if I ever decided to entrust my life, both digital and analogue, to a full Microsoft portfolio.
I could wake up; check my social media conversations on my Windows Phone; fire up my Xbox One with Kinect to do my morning workout routine; and pause it halfway via voice control when I get a message from a friend asking about dinner plans.
I could then (still using voice controls) do a quick search on Bing Maps for the closest restaurant that offers vegan cuisine nearest to the office; and update my calendar that is then automatically synced and accessible via my Surface tablet, which also doubles as my secondary work machine that I cart around while making my morning cuppa.
That's just the tip of the iceberg really.
The whole pitch made sense to me although one couldn’t help but notice that it really only works within the bubble that is Redmond, its touted wonders bestowed upon employees fully plugged into the network.
The ‘One Microsoft’ vision that the company has been pivoting toward for the past two to three years was a tough sell, a source of much frustration and slight irritation.
Not because it wasn’t great, because it is. But even if I wanted to buy in completely into the vision, there remains just one teeny problem: A decent chunk of that seamless package is not officially available in Malaysia.
A perfect example is of course, was when we got to the Xbox 360 portion of the agenda.
So there I was, sitting in the briefing room decked out much like a living room, watching as a Microsoft executive enthusiastically took us through seamless voice-controlled entertainment marvel that is the ‘Xbox One experience.’
I thought to myself. “Oh wow, this is sweet! I totally need to get me … oh, wait.”
Questions posed to executives about bringing the console to more markets yielded the usual response. They acknowledged the interest in the product and are working on getting it released.
At time of writing, there is no indication that status quo would be changed when the console enjoys its official Asia release. I could go on forever but I’ve already done my rant on Xbox.
And don’t even get me started on trying to use Bing Maps outside of the United States; it’s just useless.
I undoubtedly made my hosts more than slightly uncomfortable when halfway through the tour I turned to my Indonesian counterpart and exclaimed: “All right, next stop on the stufft-I-can’t-buy-tour!”
Going by the appreciative chuckle I got in response, it’s safe to say Indonesia probably has it worse than Malaysia on that particular scale.
And therein lies Microsoft’s problem – this need to recapture its former glory and status as the darling of tech in a home market that no longer considers the company relevant.
It was already evident during my time in the United States, which included visits to other cities that the company and its products appeared to have slipped well off the radar.
I had wondered what people there, who enjoyed the luxury of getting everything new in the tech space first, would put their money behind – and tried to discreetly identify the mobile phones and tablets being carted around on the streets.
All I saw was a sea of Apples and Androids, while my American friends assured me that many an Xbox sat in living rooms across the nation.
The closer I got to Redmond, the more Windows Phones and Surface tablets I saw, reinforcing this notion that was indeed a bubble enveloping the global headquarters of one of the most recognisable brands in technology.
The wake-up call
But the company, at least for those who dwell within its headquarters, appear to be waking up to the realities of a post-monopoly world.
The tour agenda included lunch with a ‘Hometown Hero,’ which meant I had the pleasure of spending some time with a fellow Malaysian who is based at Redmond.
Anne George (pic) is currently a senior audience marketing manager at Microsoft, and had spent over six years at the company’s operations in Malaysia before she transferred to Redmond.
A good portion of our talk, apart from the politics and situation back home, was sharing mutual frustrations over the company not getting its products and services out to Asia fast enough, if ever.
Because here’s what Redmond hadn’t quite picked up on yet – Microsoft is still beloved in Asia, and especially so in Malaysia.
A big percentage of those Xbox units they think got sold in Singapore, actually ended up in Malaysia.
When the Windows Phone was launched to market, Malaysia was one of a handful of markets to register double-digit percentage growth in market share. It was one of 14 markets reported to have outsold the iPhone, which also included Vietnam and Thailand.
I have asked more than one Microsoft executive why were the company was still so focused on the United States and Europe when Asia, and the emerging South-East Asia region, had demonstrated time and time again this loyal hunger for its wares.
Depending on who was replying, the answers would range from local market barriers to entry; supply chain difficulties; to regional level politicking over who gets to go first in the release cycle when campaigning Redmond for approval.
I once got a frank comment that with each subsidiary held so tightly accountable for hitting its revenue targets every 90 days, that there was little will to push to open up new product categories (such as the Xbox) that may or may not yield a profit.
Let’s not even talk about what kind of support subsidiaries get when it comes to pushing the Microsoft platform to developer communities across the world, especially when trying to entice developers to build for Windows Phone.
George was quite sympathetic during that lunch as I shared my frustrations and disbelief, arguing that there is hope on the horizon and that I shouldn’t count Microsoft out just yet.
“I think that sense of arrogance that comes from being in the No 1 position for so long started fading about four or five years ago.
“Slowly, that mind-set is being changed internally and we’re waking up to this position as the underdog, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing,” she added.
And she’s right. Nothing moves a company more, even a lumbering behemoth like Microsoft, than the humility that comes with falling from the top and looking back up from the almost bottom.
Because here’s the thing: For all the frustrations with the company, as one who grew up with its technology, I genuinely think the soon-to-be 40-year-old giant may just have a few tricks left up its proverbial corporate sleeve.
Microsoft does indeed have cutting-edge innovation under its belt. The company does actively search for ‘what’s next’ when it comes future-proofing its business.
Next Page: Mapping the Underground