The Death of the Word Processor

The title may be provocative, but there is a reasoning behind it based on current trends I see in the industry.   As I look back on the evolution of one of the very first business applications for the personal computer the word processor, I think we are at a time when the standard word processing application is about to evolve again into a different form (and cheaper) than what we have grown used to with packaged applications that we load on our computers hard drive.

If we look back upon the early days there were a lot of players in the industry WordPerfect, Microsoft Word, WordStar, Wang to name but a few.  But because it had a strong long-term vision tied to the operating system which it owned Microsoft’s Word for Windows would emerge the winner.  The last one standing was WordPerfect, but it would just slowly fade away.  Beyond the Word processor, Microsoft looked beyond and incorporated the spreadsheet and presentation software realizing the long-term vision that many people would use all three and would want seamless integration.  The result was Microsoft Office and the rest was history as Microsoft fought battles on all three fronts while the rest just tried to stay afloat.

As we turned the corner into a new century Microsoft Word basically sat alone, unchallenged.  Every document people opened, every attachment received was in a Word.doc format.  With every new release there were new features, new user interface designs (the ribbon anyone?).  It owned the market. It was a cash cow.  When Open Source came onto the scene it was believed it would challenge Word, but in all reality they were just free copy cat images of Word and did not offer anything new.  I always felt that if they did get any traction Microsoft would open its deep pockets to a bunch of lawyers to file a lawsuit for patent infringement etc..This view is simply based on the fact that if did not seem that these Open Source developers were coming up with a single new idea, it looked like they opened Word for Windows and were intent on creating a copy of the software.

Through this past decade there have been numerous challenges, and in certain regions of the world, some have even gained some traction, but they have never been able to gain any sustained momentum.  With the new business models being driven by companies like Google and the fact that pretty much all of us are always connected to the internet, it brings us back to a fundamental question, “If I only use 10 percent of Words capabilities why do I need to install the rest?” and the follow-up question, “why should I pay for innovation that I never will use?”.

What will the future word processor look like?  In a simple word, Notepad.  If you are running Windows just click “Start”, then “All Programs” , then “accessories” – you will find a little application called  Notepad.  You may say is this all?  No but what I believe could and will happen is for your document application you will be presented with a basic framework that allows you to type and provides a subset of fonts.  Then using the persistent connection to the internet you will be able to surf the web and add accessories to your document framework.  It will look like two things already available in the market.  The Eclipse Framework (developers will know what I am talking about), which allows developers just to grab plug-ins for whatever they are working on  and an online store similar to what most people most are already familiar with, the Apple App Store.  Some of these add-ins will be free, some charged for – but your word processor which for years has been a couple of hundred dollars will now be available to do most of what you want to do for under $20 and in some instances it will be free.

For some companies, namely one, Microsoft, this will be a very painful transition.  Unless they get out in front of the market it will be a missed opportunity that will cost them dearly as more and more end-users spend time outside of the Microsoft software ecosystem.  However like everything else in technology when markets change there will be those who seize the opportunity.  Could you have an ad driven model within a word processor?  Why not?  Could the market for cool ad-ons in the document framework explode?  Sure.  In the end the one thing I am sure of is the one benefit will be a better more affordable experience for both end-users and enterprises a like.

Good Night and Good Luck

Hans Henrik Hoffmann December 21, 2010

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The end of the Gates Era

Bill Gates equals Microsoft.  No statement about a corporation is more true than that single statement.  Bill Gates is an industry icon, one of the legends who helped build the industry.  There are many Steve Wozniak, Steve Jobs, Michael Dell, Ray Ozzie, Paul Allen to name but a few.  But possibly, with the exception of Steve Jobs, no one individual has meant more to the success of an individual company than Bill Gates.  Which was why when he left Microsoft it left such an enormous empty space in the company.

In my early days at Microsoft, when I was new to the industry and new to computing, I sat in a cubicle managing the front lines of customer service.  I would receive a hundred calls a day ranging from feature questions about Word for Windows 1.1 to replacement parts for a MACH80 board.  It was trial by fire.  It was fantastic. To educate us the Product managers would often come over from Redmond to our building in Bellevue and provide us the latest details of a recently launched product or an upcoming product release.  In most instances they would talk about a recent product review they had with Bill Gates as during those days of a smaller company he was engaged in every aspect of product development.  Despite not being those meetings, in still felt like everyone in the company had a close personal connection to Bill Gates.

The Gates era did not end when he retired to focus on the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation, it really ended when he stepped down as CEO and handed the reigns to his designated number two, Steve Ballmer.  I remember stepping off  of a plane in Atlanta seeing a TV screen right as I entered Hartsfield Airport terminal a  CNN Breaking News Alert with Bill announcing his plans to turn over the running of the day-to-day business of the company so he could focus more on setting the development strategy for Microsoft.    Looking back I could understand.  This was coming on the heels of the DOJ trial that weighed heavily on Bill (and everyone at the company) as it was not so much an attack on Microsoft as it was a personal attack on him.  He was tired.  In some ways it was a good thing as the companies strategy  at the time internally was getting very political as different groups pursued similar goals with different views of what technology to utilize.  Groups were fighting amongst one another. Bill quickly came in and settled those disputes as despite the change in roles Bill’s word was still law. 

During the next 8 years Bill’s voice became much softer at Microsoft. He was  no longer the front man in talking with the press and representing Microsoft.  Steve recognizing the growth at Microsoft set out upon a path of creating a dynamic corporate structure.  While Bill was always focused on technology and the promise of what it could deliver, Steve was reading Jack Welch and how he could create the next GE.  At the annual Microsoft Global Sales Summit, where the highlight was always the closing Bill Gates talk, it was now replaced with the prancing gorilla, Steve Ballmer.  Where the talk was usually a presentation of where Microsoft was technically and where it was going.  It was now replaced with talks of responsible corporate governance.  Technical junkies do not respond well to that type of mantra.  It is no wonder since Microsoft has seen a significant “brain drain” of talent.  The list is long – Paul Maritz, Ray Ozzie, Adam Bosworth, Bill Baker, Todd Nielsen, Brad Silverberg, Cameron Myrvold, Robbie Bach, Brian Valentine, Jim Alchin, Kai-Fu Lee, etc…More importantly since he has left it has been much harder for Microsoft to recruit top-level talent, as Bill was a great recruiter.

When he finally did leave, it was without much fanfare, outside of a funny Bill Gates last day video.  Bill had agonized with his wife Melinda and when he announced he provided a long lag time before he actually left – a little less than 2 years.  He checked out long before that day.  The reigns would be handed over to Ray Ozzie (who has sin ce departed) and Craig Mundie.  What has been left is a gaping hole devoid of leadership.  Microsoft has struggled with the weight of its own identity and its own history.  It was probably unavoidable that without Bill there would be no one individual or group of people who could fill the void left by a legend. 

In the end what has been most missed at Microsoft in Bill’s departure is the calming influence he could have with his words and classic emails.  The ability to craft a strategy that utilized all our assets and take it to the future in a cohesive strategy.  In doing so he inspired those beneath him to follow and follow with passion.  What Bill is doing now with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is monumental.  The fact that he is accumulated wealth that he has decided to try to change some of the big issues and challenges in the world should be admired.   But can Microsoft survive without his guidance may be the true legacy of the Gates era.

Good Night and Good Luck

Hans Henrik Hoffmann Dec 13th, 2010

Technical Vision

I was drawn recently to an article in the InternetNews announcing that Paul Maritz, current CEO at VMWare was the recipient, for the second time,  of the Internetnews.com CEO Vision Award. Midway through my career at Microsoft I had a one on one meeting with Paul to prepare him for a briefing with one of my customers CEO’s.  At the time he was definitely one of the sharpest people we had at Microsoft and a close confidant of Bill Gates.  He would be a primary driver of Microsoft’s Server and Tools Business, creating the next billion dollar business for Microsoft.  He then went on to create something called Dotnet before retiring and riding off  into the sunset.   However great technical visionaries can never sit on the sidelines too long, they always comeback. To this day, as is evident. he retains that unique technical and business ability to see the direction the industry is headed and get out in front of the curve.

Companies come and go in the tech industry but one thing is certain those that can see the mid-term and long-term horizon stand a much better chance of success than those that simply just follow the lead of others.  A lot of companies start with a mission statement – most I believe is because a company thinks they must have a mission statement.  In the world of tech there are two pieces to a successful mission statement.   First it has to be long terms and have an end goal.  A good example is  the original Microsoft mission statement created back in the mid seventies “A PC on every desktop and in every home”.  One it is long-term it would take over 20 years to realize this dream  Another thing I like about this is nowhere does it mention the business Microsoft is in, software.  Software is implied because of the use of the term PC.  The second piece of a great mission statement is having great and credible people behind it.  In this case you had Bill Gates and Paul Allen and a whole bunch of great technical luminaries who were part of the company at the time (including Paul Maritz),

What if you don’t have those two things?  Well the same company I just referenced does not have those things today.  They live-on as a cash cow.  Not a bad place to be, but long-term it raises questions.  Every company needs to dedicate time to think through a few simple questions: Where will we in 10 years? 15 years? 20 years?  Where will the industry be in that same timeframe?  And how do we participate in those changing trends and stay out in front rather than lag behind?  In technology not an easy thing to do.  When Microsoft launched Windows 95 the future seemed clear and the role the PC would play was going to become greater.  About one month later the internet burst onto the scene and  the whole industry, let alone the world changed.  These type of game changing scenarios keep happening over and over again.  Apple launches it i-devices,  Google jumps out way ahead in search.  Social platforms like Facebook and Twitter come forward, Amazon sees the cloud before the rest and jumps ahead of the curve.  The examples are plentiful.  They are like freight trains leaving the station, catch them before they gain momentum otherwise it is near impossible to stop them.

In politics it is often said if you want to find out about something, “just follow the money”.  In technology I would say just follow the technical talent.    When talent starts leaving Google to go to Facebook, one should ask “why?”  When talent just starts retiring the same question should be asked.  Does a company have the ability to attract new talent?.  When you look across the industry today you see a lot of movement as people try to catch the wave of the next big opportunity or social network.  Once upon a time there were just a few companies that attracted a lot of talented people, now there are hundreds of companies to choose from.

I have been fortunate throughout my career to hear and meet some great technology luminaries in the industry.  I worked at a company with one of the greatest, Bill Gates.  But there are new young guns out in the industry such as Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook and Sergey Brin at Google.  The old guard is still around to guide those passions and promise,  Eric Schmidt, CEO at Google has the business acumen to guide that young talent at Google.  Paul Maritz is still very able and capable, just look at the performance of VMWare, despite increased competition.  My one question to my readers is if you are in the tech industry who is guiding your company to the future?  If you can’t answer or don’t know it may be time to abandon ship, before it sinks.  One thing I can guarantee without a technical vision the boat will sink.

Good Night and Good Luck

Hans Henrik Hoffmann December 7, 2010