Microsoft: It’s Hip To Be Square

Published on Author Eli Fennell


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The Apple-Samsung trial brought to light that Microsoft and Apple have a “gentleman’s agreement” ( regarding patents: Microsoft ensures that they do not “clone” (read: make anything Apple thinks looks to much like it) iOS, and in exchange Apple doesn’t bother them about certain products.  That they nonetheless infringe on some Apple patents doesn’t bother hardcore fans of Apple; as long as it’s on Apple’s terms, it’s okay.

You certainly couldn’t blame Steve Jobs or Tim Cook.  Their version of history is self-serving, but it’s not entirely untrue: Apple put a lot of work into beautifying their consumer operating system with one of the earliest graphical user interfaces, trusted Bill Gates and Microsoft to help keep them ahead of the competition, and got screwed in the process.  Microsoft created Windows, overtook Macintosh, and the rest is well known history.

It’s not even an analogy to point to the similarity in iOS and Android: Google owned an OS and so did Apple, Apple needed their help to keep them ahead, trusted the bespectacled CEO of this trusted ally with early information about iOS, and then up crops Android, which is an awful lot like iOS.  A truck is also an awful lot like a car, and Android’s development began before Google bought the company, but still, the parallel would be hard not to notice.  Apple noticed it, and figured that this time, because of their patents, they were prepared.

But the fact that Ballmer made the agreement is a sad statement, both on Microsoft’s leverage in the market, and on his own lack of ambition.  Apple’s terms were outrageous, and only tremendous arrogance by the CEO of Microsoft can explain this.  Bill Gates might have smiled, told them what they wanted to hear, and then did whatever he thought he could get away with.  As Picasso said, and Steve Jobs agreed (once upon a time), “Good artists copy, great artists steal.”  By that measure, Bill Gates was perhaps the greatest artist of all time.

Where Bill Gates would look at a Macintosh and know his future as an OS maker would be imperiled if he didn’t create a different version of the same product (which is called competition, by the way, and is virtually required by law), Steve Ballmer thought that Microsoft could make something very different and succeed.

The fact that there is nothing in the history of Microsoft to suggest they could do such a thing, outside perhaps of Xbox, never occured to him.  Microsoft’s history of trying to build its own operating system interface is a sordid history.  Apple, while not inventing any of the ideas themselves, recognized the value of the WIMP (Windows, Icons, Menu, Pointer) design.  Microsoft, from Windows 1.0 onwards, constantly defaults to “square” when trying to outthink Apple.

Windows 1.0 had square program windows surprisingly similar to the Tiles of Windows Phone and Windows 8.  Windows Media Center is also based around tiles: Microsoft thought WMC would some day be the primary interface for interacting with media on your device.  While WMC is great if you have a TV Tuner, radio equipment, an Xbox, or other such device attached to your PC, it never took off as the best way to view pictures, video files, etc…  Users simply reverted to the file system and the programs that run those files.

Because it worked so well for WMC, Microsoft decided to double-down on the experiment with their “iPod killer” the Zune.  Microsoft apparently just loves to think square, and Apple’s patent portfolio seemed to be the best opportunity to go all-in on that approach.

And because that worked out so spectacularly, they decided to continue the experiment with Windows Phone.  Which has, of course, been such an enormous success that they thought they’d just go ahead and do it again with Xbox and Windows 8.  And because of all of this has made Microsoft so much money and been such an enormous win for Ballmer’s tiger blood and Adonis DNA, Nokia thought, “Hey, here’s an idea… we’ll make an iPhone killer called the Lumia 900, and it’ll be square!”  And then because they were on roll, Microsoft thought, “Hey, let’s make our new logos square too!  People will love it!”

Lessons I Learned From Microsoft: Whe you’ve dug yourself into a hole, by all means keep digging, sooner or later you’ll come out the other side.

If I’m a Microsoft investor right now, I’m waiting to see how Windows 8 goes, and if that goes as badly as their previous attempts to force the squarest user interface in history on the general populace, I’m heating up the tar, collecting the feathers, and warming up the rail (that he will ride out of town on) for the CEO of Microsoft.

In Walter Isaacon’s biography of Steve Jobs, he recounts how Jobs was adamant about rounded corners on the iPhone, and took his designers around to see how rounded corners were on the designs of nearly every new product (which should instantly discredit their design patents, but that’s another matter).  Even the iOS icons, which are kind of square, have rounded corners (an issue in the Samsung case).

Curvature in general is sexy.  The person who finds a box sexier than its content, or worse thinks a box inside a box or on top of a box or beside one is the hottest thing out there, is an odd sort of person indeed.  Not necessarily wrong… just not in strong company.  Someone thinks flat broad shoulders in women is attractive; someone thinks it’s attractive for women not to have noticable hips; someone thinks a cube-shaped car is the hottest on the lot.  They’re just not in the majority.

But hey, no one can fight for the squares of the world like Microsoft, right?  And it’s okay, because there will always be tech reviewers and fanbois to tell them to stay the course, that they can’t lose, that Microsoft is an inevitable fact of life like the rain, the sunrise, and cancer of the pancreas.  Maybe they are.  Maybe “the squares” are the norm and always have been, but so far that theory doesn’t seem to work.

If Google are thieves, then they’re the best type of thief, the type that used to run Microsoft and Apple: the thief who doesn’t deny what he is.  He might make excuses, but that he steals the best ideas of other and repackages them in a better form, is not something he’d flatly deny.

By agreeing to Apple’s terms, Microsoft legitimized them, and the patents behind them.  To succeed now, they will have to do something that quite likely no company in history has ever done: regress a product line entirely to its most basic form (the square or rectangle being the most basic form of any given consumer product), and make it the hottest game in town.

Good luck, Ballmer.  You’re going to need it.

But then again, it’s easy to criticize, hard to offer solutions, so here’s my solution for Microsoft: team up with Google.  Between your various patents, the two of you could take Apple down for good, invalidate all of their patents perhaps, force them to cross-license at least, and maybe even reform the laws so you can go back to doing what you do best, drawing inspiration from the best ideas of others and using them to improve.

I know you’re pissed off at Google, join the club because it’s pretty large, but don’t ruin your company over a grudge.  Please.