The Lumber Room

"Consign them to dust and damp by way of preserving them"

A history of Microsoft Word, and an insight into the Microsoft outlook

with 2 comments

(Ok, couldn’t resist adding the accidental pun to the title.)

Fascinating article from 2004, from a Microsoft employee.

I plan to revisit this post and clean it up (as always?), but here are some interesting quotes:

After a year of distrusting the company somewhat, I began to gain an appreciation of how Microsoft worked, and to see it for what it was – a machine that was focused on building products that people wanted, as quickly and as well as they could. Note the “quickly” – this was what distinguished MS from Apple in the end – a focus on moving quickly, and beating the competition. Details like great design were simply not critical to most (business) customers, so that sort of thing didn’t really make it into most products, except where it mattered to the target customer. It’s hard to fault this logic really – it is pure efficiency from a business perspective…

This is illustrative of the Microsoft outlook on doing business: great design is a “detail”; the main goal is to beat the competition and gain market share.

Both Microsoft and Apple have very smart people as employees. The goal at Microsoft is to grab as much share as possible, even at the cost of shoddily designed software if necessary. The goal at Apple is to design software that is simple yet powerful, and a pleasure to use. And both have been phenomenally successful at what they want to do.

The Microsoft approach is to get a release out of the door, see what the main reasons people have for not using it (not necessarily what people most complain about), throw patches (or wizards!) to get those issues across the level of acceptability, add new things, move on, keep moving — the appropriate scenario is not software design, it is war: it is all Fire And Motion.

So, that in a nutshell is the Microsoft method. Understand the market, and the customers, and then go pedal to the metal, with release after release focused on what the customers need, incorporating their feedback. That puts the competition into reaction mode. And of course it helps if they also make a strategic error because they are under so much pressure.

And how successful they have been. Even creating markets where there none.

“I think there is a world market for maybe five computers”
— Misattributed to Thomas J Watson, IBM president, 1943.

No one can disagree that Microsoft has had a bigger role in bringing computers to the masses than anyone else. Perhaps it would have been better if they hadn’t.

Another point is that it shows (again!) (twice!) that it is a really stupid idea to throw away all your code and start over.

Written by S

Sat, 2008-03-29 at 04:18:26

Posted in Uncategorized

Tagged with , ,

2 Responses

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  1. Hi there,

    I see you linked to my post on the history of Word. Thanks for that.

    I’d like to note that I did not say Microsoft software was “shoddy” or that quality was ever compromised as you implied.

    My point was that “elegant design” does not matter to some types of customers (and remember I am a huge fan of great design, and of many Apple products). If, at the cost of being late to market you insist on elegant design even when it is not needed by the customer, you lose ground in a competition. “design elegance” is one element of a product. Others are functionality, performance, quality, price, availability and so on. A good product designer balances all of these when determining what the right product to deliver is.

    Microsoft does great design when it is needed – the latest Zunes, XBox 360, the new Ribbon user interface in Office 2007 and so on are examples of excellent design in my opinion. Throughout the period I was discussing – the early 90s in particular, Microsoft applications such as Word and Excel won the great majority of product reviews for being the best software in category. Software doesn’t win reviews year after year by being “shoddy”.

    Anyway, thanks for letting me clarify.


    Chris Pratley

    Sat, 2008-03-29 at 04:50:17

  2. Hello,

    I did not intend to give the impression that those were your words; I hope that is not how it looks.

    Note that I didn’t actually call anything shoddy, although I do happen to believe that much of Microsoft’s software (like all software in general) is… less than optimally designed :P

    Good design, unlike functionality, performance and so on, is something that is exceptionally hard to add to a product later — changing the design is usually too expensive. Thus the only way to ensure great design is to be fastiduous from the very start (and yes, this might lead one to be late to market and lose ground in a competition, which is sad). Microsoft (and most software makers in general) do seem to have the idea that good design is often “not needed”, as you say. Is it surprising then, that good design does not automatically appear?

    It is certainly possible, with an assortment of patchwork, to cover all the worst areas and make a program possible to use. The resulting ordeal is far from the most pleasant experience that can be provided by good design, though.

    Thanks for commenting,
    and thanks again for the very interesting post.


    Sat, 2008-03-29 at 16:02:20

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