Written by Nick Heer.

Skating Towards the Goal

Ben Thompson:

Steve Jobs famously used the Wayne Gretzky quote: “I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been” to wrap up the iPhone introduction.

Since then, a popular criticism of Microsoft is directly ripped off from this: that they are continually skating to where the puck has been. And while that’s arguably true in a narrow sense, it misses the bigger picture: Apple may very well be Wayne Gretzky, performing ballet on skates and seeing what others don’t see. But the second greatest goal scorer in NHL history is Gordie Howe, known not for his grace but for his strength, durability, and willingness to mix it up. There is virtue in the single-minded pursuit of a goal, and the absolute refusal to be deterred.

I don’t think Microsoft’s problem is a lack of innovation; rather, I think it has been a lack of excellence in execution. Microsoft has continuously demonstrated excellence in concept and ideation in the past several years, from the tile concept of Windows Phone to the Xbox Kinect.

Where they have stumbled is in clearly defining their vision for customers, and in their execution of that vision. Windows is a confusing mix of tablet and desktop metaphors, while the Surface lineup is bifurcated for barely-comprehensible reasons. And I don’t think that this inability to execute is unrelated to their inability to define this vision for customers; I really think that Microsoft is uncertain where they stand in 2013.

So, to relate this back to the oddly-entrenched hockey metaphor that Thompson refers to, I think Microsoft is simultaneously trying to be both Gretzky and Howe: they want to skate to where the puck is going to be while steamrolling over anyone in their way. But I think the negative attributes of this approach have become apparent: they’re too big to nimbly steer, but too varied to have a singular set of values in mind.

I don’t think Microsoft should be like Apple, or Google, or any other company; I don’t think any company should necessarily take the strategy of another company. Apple wouldn’t be better off if they started making all of their products free and ad supported, à la Google, would they? But perhaps a series of smaller companies operating more-or-less autonomously under a Microsoft holding group might produce better products.