Microsoft

Andrew Hill

What is the Finnish for “I told you so”? That is how plenty of Finns – including a large number of ex-Nokians, swept out in successive restructurings since Stephen Elop took charge of Nokia in 2010 – will greet news that Microsoft is to buy the mobile company’s handset and services business.

It won’t make any difference to them that Nokia has an increasingly important telecoms equipment business, NSN, which guarantees a future to the rump of the company. Since the radical strategy shift of the mid-1990s, when the timber-to-tyres conglomerate refocused on its fledgling telecoms operation, Nokia has been identified with home-grown phones. But a second coming under Finnish ownership for the country’s best-known consumer brand turned out to be impossible: its future will now be dictated from Redmond not Espoo.

This outcome, or a version of it, was already in the air in early 2011 when I visited Nokia’s headquarters to look at the challenges facing Mr Elop. His decision to leap from a “burning platform”, as he called it, into the arms of Microsoft as software partner for its smartphones certainly ruled out other options, such as using Google’s Android or a home-grown operating system. But a full takeover of the phones business by the US company was not inevitable.

Four elements have conspired to make it happen. Read more

John Gapper

Steve Ballmer of Microsoft

Steve Ballmer. Image by Getty.

No chief executive wants the company’s shares to jump sharply on the news that he or she is stepping down.

Pent-up relief, however, was the reaction to Steve Ballmer’s decision to retire as Microsoft chief executive within a year.

It has been a long time coming. Mr Ballmer has struggled mightily since becoming the boss in 2000 to keep Microsoft at the front of the computing and software industry, but has allowed it to be eclipsed by Google and Apple. Read more

In the browser wars that began in the 1990s, it took more than a decade for regulators to stop Microsoft exploiting its dominance with users of Windows software. In today’s mobile battles, customers have done so themselves in six months. Microsoft’s rapid retreat over Windows 8 – the latest, mobile-inspired, version of its operating software – shows wise flexibility rather than its traditional obstinacy. But it also demonstrates that Steve Ballmer, the company’s chief executive, has lost the power to “embrace and extend” the Windows hegemony into new fields.

Andrew Hill

No doubt, if Microsoft reverses course over Windows 8 – for instance, by restoring the familiar “Start” button to the opening screen – it will provide abundant fodder for the writers of business school case studies.

But is the comparison with Coca-Cola’s famous 1985 marketing U-turn, when it brought back “Coke Classic” following a consumer backlash against its “New Coke” recipe, correct? Read more

Andrew Hill

Microsoft has been fined by the European Commission. Getty Images

Jaron Lanier is a “partner architect” at Microsoft but he doesn’t speak for the software company. As the scientist, composer and author explained to an audience at The Economist’s Technology Frontiers conference on Tuesday, what he says “probably horrifies any number of individuals within the company”.

Even so, in retrospect, it his hard not to read some of his remarks differently, in the light of the European Commission’s €561m fine for Microsoft, confirmed on Wednesday, for breaching a high-profile competition agreement with the European Union. Read more

John Gapper

Microsoft's Steven Sinofsky introduces a new tablet computer. Image by Getty

The unexpected departure of Steven Sinofsky as head of Microsoft’s giant Windows division has some inescapable similarities to that of Scott Forstall, who ran Apple’s mobile software. Read more

John Gapper

Here’s a quiz: which large US corporation calls itself a “devices and services” company?

a) Boeing

b) General Electric

c) Apple

d) Microsoft Read more

John Gapper

Microsoft’s launch of the Surface, its belated rival to Apple’s iPad, brought an interesting declaration from Steve Ballmer, its chief executive, as reported by the FT:

“We believe that any intersection between human and machine can be made better when all aspects of the experience – hardware and software – are working together,” said Mr Ballmer. Read more

John Gapper

Sarah Gordon points out that Nokia and Sony have a set of problems that undermined their capacity for innovation. But they are far from alone in being victims of Apple’s success.

In fact, the list of Apple victims is long and stretches across the media and technology. Since Steve Jobs unveiled iTunes and the iPod in 2001, starting Apple’s decade long rise to  dominance in consumer technology and electronics, his company has left many of its competitors wounded. Read more

John Gapper

Google’s  stance against the European Commission on the subject of privacy – rolling out its new policy for sharing personal data among its sites despite warnings that it may breach European law – strikes me as foolhardy.

US companies that get into a tangle with the EU, often egged on by US supporters who believe that European regulators are over-reaching their powers, tend to come off worse from the struggle. The prime example was Microsoft in its anti-trust battle during the mid-2000s.

The pattern is in danger of being repeated, with supporters of internet freedoms such as Jeff Jarvis of City University of New York criticising the EU action and arguing that it is part of a pattern of government attempts at misguided regulation. Read more

Andrew Hill

Apple’s flirtation with the top spot in the list of the world’s largest companies by market capitalisation – which would end a six-year reign by ExxonMobil – is the sort of market trivia that we journalists love.

Perhaps it’s because rankings are so easy to understand, and a ranking voted on every day has added spice. Apple nearly went under a decade ago, which further enlivens this tale of corporate success. But given the capriciousness of markets, the other main point of interest is that Exxon has managed to hold the top position, with brief interruptions, for so long. Read more

Andrew Hill

One of Nokia’s biggest challenges is to maintain its home-grown Symbian operating system, while simultaneously producing attractive Windows-run smartphones under its brand-new partnership with Microsoft. Exactly how that would be done was one of the questions I couldn’t yet answer in my recent two-part analysis of Nokia’s future.

It turns out the challenge will be met, in part, by offloading it onto Accenture. On Wednesday, Nokia announced that 3,000 staff – mainly Symbian software engineers – would transfer to the consultancy (an additional 4,000 jobs will be lost across Nokia).

I don’t know what the Finnish for “hot potato” is, but Accenture has been handed one. Read more

Andrew Hill

There is no doubting Stephen Elop and his lieutenants’ resolve to rebuild the mobile phone company’s platform, having declared that it is burning. But having interviewed the chief executive and some of his leadership team – as well as current and former staff – for my two-part analysis of the company’s management challenges, I’m left with a nagging question: is the crisis at Nokia grave enough to trigger the necessary cultural and behavioural change at the Finnish group?

It remains a profitable company, with a strong balance sheet and the largest share of mobile phones by units shipped. Barely five years ago, it was riding high, the darling of business school professors and commentators, and that good feeling is hard for veteran Nokians to forget. Read more

John Gapper

The rise of Android, the open source smartphone operating system pioneered by Google, continues apace. According to figures from NPD Group, Android was installed in 44 per cent of all smartphones sold in the US in the third quarter, compared with 23 per cent for Apple’s iOS.

Apple has already responded by agreeing to Verizon, which has the most solid US mobile network, selling a CDMA version of the iPhone from next year.

The intriguing thing about the Android vs iOS battle is how closely it mirrors that between Microsoft and Apple’s past battle over PC operating software. Microsoft won on volume with Windows but Apple’s tight control of its OS operating system allowed it retain the quality edge. Read more

John Gapper

One of the trickiest challenges for a company is continuous innovation – to keep updating and refreshing its products when the excitement of a product launch is past – so I take my hat off to Google.

In contrast to Microsoft, which in the past let products such as Internet Explorer and Hotmail get overtaken by newer rivals, Google is devoted to updating its online software suite, including Gmail and other applications including Google Calendar. Read more