Book Review: Microsoft 2.0: How Microsoft Plans to Stay Relevant in the Post Gates Era

What does someone who's been covering Microsoft for 25 years think about Bill Gates' retirement? Ask Mary Jo Foley, or consider her book, Microsoft 2.0: How Microsoft Plans to Stay Relevant in the Post Gates Era. I read and I found it to be somewhat encyclopedic in its breadth and knowledge of the inner workings of Microsoft, every page chock-full of historical context and deep knowledge and liberal use of external sources. It's all especially impressive since Microsoft PR decided against officially supporting Gates-transition stories. And she plays neither fault-blind sympathiser nor superficially informed critic; her work is pitch perfect, calling out the obscene and yet recommending doubters not count out Microsoft as Bill leaves.

The book is set up in these chapters: Recap of Gate Era Microsoft, Buzzwords, People, Short Term Products, Big Bet Products, Tried and True Business Models, Untried but Unavoidable Business Models, On to Microsoft 3.0.

Again, Mary Jo Foley, as a Microsoft devoted Journalist, never falls into the rabbit hole of fandom that so many Apple writers do. She quotes Microsoft's ambitions to embed Live cloud tech into the OS, and then she puts it like this, in regards to Windows: Give users what they want ("a more transparent user experience"). Office is another place she shows her perspective is right. "The Office team is focusing on two simultaneous missions: Introduce new and compelling features that will make existing customers want to upgrade..." She follows that up with a clear line, "Office today is seen by many as a bloated product that includes loads of features that very few people ever use. So Microsoft can't simply keep cranking out more and more new Office features and modules and hope it will stumble magically on something that will win over laggards still running Office 2003, Office XP, or Office 97." The entire book is well reasoned like this. That would be stating the obvious, if it weren't so meticulously researched and steeped in tons of internal perspective culled from that source list.

For example, she has a list of 10 bullet pointed objectives that are to set apart Office 14, and notes that there is no Office 13, for superstitious reasons. She has collated a list of over 40 Windows Live sub brands, and then revisited the pruned list published in 2007. Maybe so she can marvel at their bloat. She explains the subtle divide between Ballmer execs and Gates execs, partial to business minded thinking or tech minded thinking. She dives into executives and personalities and traits of 10 "Baby Ballmers," far beyond the recognisable Allard and Bach or Ozzie, and even does a list of 10 up and coming execs behind that. She touches the main profit centres and goes into heathcare, auto, and far deeper into enterprise than I'd ever care to go. This level of granularity feels exhausting sometimes and I'd gloss over sections I didn't care to know about, but there is a lot there. She draws a picture of the monstrous organisation in high granularity, but does not often have a chance to make sense of all of it under the umbrella of a company goal. Could anyone?

It's impossible to explain the depth and random knowledge you will find here. Let me pick out a handful of details by just randomly flipping open five pages:
•Microsoft has been testing an Office rental program outside of the US
•"The Studio" in a branding group in charge of bringing semblance to Xbox, Zune, etc. in the E&D groups.
•Cool codenames like Fiji and Longhorn are being used less and less. Boo!
•In the past, Microsoft research has demoed using the mobile connected to a TV as a low-cost PC in developing countries.
•A huge chunk of Microsoft's future revenue is from piracy crackdowns.

The facts within this book aren't stunners. But there is just so much info about how the company's business works, it can't be undervalued. I could probably pull 2,000 bits like this from the text. Is it cohesively organised? As best it can be. This is Microsoft, after all.

There is one major shortcoming which I've talked to Mary Jo Foley about. It's her ignorance of Xbox and Zune in the book, which get only three pages. Why? Because they don't make any money. I get that, they're tiny in financial regards, but Zune and Xbox are some of the few products done right at Microsoft in the last few years. Even if they don't make money, they're important for morale and example for the Windows groups. Products have to be great before people buy them and love them enough to tell their friends about them. Unless you have a monopoly business model as Windows and Office practically do. Even in that case, it's very clear that people will resist, and resent when it's shoved down their throats, as evident by the way people are clinging to XP. With that in mind, I consider the book somewhat incomplete and I think that these groups deserve more attention and respect from Mary Jo Foley.

Does this book answer the question of how Microsoft will thrive without Gates full time? I'm confident that it's a good look at the company more than anything. I mean, Gates will still be around one day a week, and he's been transitioning ever since Ballmer took the CEO role about eight years ago, so the pivotal moment of his quasi-retirement is not a shocking event as much as it is interesting.

So, I recommend this book not as casual reading, but as an invaluable reference to people who want to read up on Microsoft's inner workings. Most other books don't get past the '90s or the antitrust issues, and books on tech age almost as quickly as companies like Microsoft change pace. Being that this book is the latest and the only one to have such current matter and historical grounding, every tech journalist and follower of tech business should have it in their library. The only excuse for not having it is if you've also been covering Microsoft for 25 years. [Amazon]