A Surface Look at Bad Management

Microsoft_SurfaceI made the mistake of buying a Microsoft Surface RT a week ago. As somewhat of a Microsoft devotee, I had high hopes that this tool would at least be functional and decent as an occasional laptop replacement, despite recent articles predicting its imminent demise and the alarming news that Microsoft took a $900 million writedown on the product. The recently announced steep discounts for educators made this an easier risk to take, so I took the plunge … right into a fast-food restaurant dumpster.

Aesthetically, the Surface RT shines. It feels sturdy and well-built without seeming hefty. Its screen is bright and is just the right size and resolution for viewing everything from spreadsheets to HD movies. Its integrated type cover, which snaps securely into the base of the screen, is innovative and lightweight and helps boost productivity like no other accessory. It has a nifty “kickstand” in the back that securely supports the screen. Finally, it has USB and HDMI ports, which means Microsoft did not intend for this device to be an island unto itself.

Oh, but it is, in ways that I would have never expected from a device made in era when connectivity is king. The problem with the Surface RT is the RT part. It might as well stand for “Really Trying”, for it gets in the user’s way at every turn.

The RT operating system is a stripped down version of Windows 8. I love Windows 8, even on my non-touch-enabled laptop. It’s fast, pretty to look at, well-connected, intuitive, stable, and usually secure: all the things you’d want from a modern operating system.

RT, on the other hand, is slow and pokey. You can’t connect it to a network domain. You have to authenticate to it using your Microsoft username and password rather than one specific to that machine. You can launch a program from the desktop, but the number of applications that run in this more traditional way are limited pretty much to Microsoft Office and Internet Explorer. Speaking of that, you can browse the web, but only if you use the worst browser this side of Safari, Internet Explorer.

Most of the applications that run on the Surface RT use the so-called “Metro” interface, which are full-screen, aesthetically pleasing apps that replicate the look-and-feel of what you’d use on a smartphone. While I find nothing wrong with Metro, the showstopper here is that the Microsoft App Store has so few apps available to download, and many of them, from what I have seen so far, are buggy, slow, and of limited utility. For example, I thought that perhaps I could at least use the RT to access Dropbox and Evernote. Alas, Dropbox is not available, and Evernote’s Metro app keeps crashing for no apparent reason whatsoever.

This thing is frustrating in its uselessness.

It is amazing to me that a company as accomplished as Microsoft continues to step wrong. The number of failures in its portfolio is alarming. Many will remember the Zune as the butt of jokes, the little music player that was shaped and sized like an elf-house brick, that forced users to interact with their music library in a completely unintuitive way and to pay for their music in … uh … points instead of money. You will recall the abomination that was Vista. Even the XBox, one of Microsoft’s few recent unmitigated successes, has been plagued by confusing practices regarding XBox Live and its plethora of membership options. Does anybody but eccentric contrarians use a Windows phone? Windows 7 and 8 are great operating systems, but does the marketplace really need 6 different versions of each?

And why RT in the first place? Why not just issue Windows 8 from the start on a tablet, price it cheap, and then make your money off the marketplace.  So many people would have jumped on a $599 pretty-to-look-at legitimately Windows 8 tablet with an integrated keyboard and kickstand that the marketplace would have been abuzz with cool apps and content that would have rivaled what the half-eaten fruit company offers.

Instead, Microsoft threw RT out there as a teaser, explaining that the full Windows 8 Surface would come out six months later and cost $500 more. And that cool keyboard featured in all the adds would cost $150 extra, too.

Microsoft has lost its way because it can’t release anything that isn’t unnecessarily complex. It almost seems that Microsoft designs its products and their rollouts specifically to compete in Rube Goldberg competitions.

The overall impression I get from Microsoft’s missteps is that every decision they make is the result of numerous political compromises made through multiple committee meetings with every possible stakeholder on deck. Rather than commit to an industry sector completely, they err in keeping ties to their legacy operations, as if they don’t really want their mobile and tablet products to take flight for fear of losing touch with what made them one of the most successful companies on the planet. Rather than embrace the notion that the future doesn’t need or want a desktop and that it will be built on apps sold in virtual marketplaces rather than shrink-wrapped software sold on big-box store shelves, it tries to shove 2005 thinking into 2013 devices. The end result is things like RT; the end result is a mess.

Many of us have worked or are currently working for organizations managed by people who lack the will to take the bold steps. They make decisions by committee rather than rely on data and trends and performance indicators. They seek to appease rather than to divine the quickest, clearest path to success. They play one unit against another to avoid making decisions and to give the illusion of trying to please everyone when, actually, all they’ve managed to do is kick the can up the road and buy some time for themselves. Rather than reward obvious successes, they handicap them by refusing to anoint a winner lest the losing party get its feelings hurt.

The results are clear and nasty:  greatly diminished productivity, terribly blurred vision, and very unhappy employees. Every account I’ve read of Steve Ballmer’s tenure at Microsoft suggest that that is how he has led Microsoft since Bill Gates retired. It is amazing that that kind of management, which is so commonplace today in companies and universities, has been allowed to persist for nearly a decade now at one of the world’s most storied brands.

Let’s call it what it is: Management RT. Really Terrible.

 

About Ray Klump

Professor and chair of Mathematics and Computer Science Director, Master of Science in Information Security Lewis University http://online.lewisu.edu/ms-information-security.asp, http://online.lewisu.edu/resource/engineering-technology/articles.asp, http://cs.lewisu.edu. You can find him on Google+.

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