Microsoft: What a difference a year makes

Microsoft is likely to top the list of the most improved companies for 2011. Indeed, 2009 ended a decade of disappointing personal technology products from Redmond – particularly Windows Vista –  which left many of us wondering if MS could do anything right.   

However, 2010 kicked off with Windows 7, IE9 (beta), Windows Phone 7 and Xbox Kinect, along with some very positive financial results.

To be sure, for much of last decade Microsoft was considered the personification of Evil, and for much of last year, Google effortlessly took their place after seeming to promise when they started that they would avoid doing evil things.     

Let’s talk a bit about how Microsoft and Google traded places last year, well more than traded places; Google passed Microsoft like a jet plane and not in a good way. We’ll focus on Microsoft’s improvements today.

Microsoft Improvements

Last year was defined by Microsoft improvements – not the least of which was Windows 7 which turned out to be their most successful product ever.

Granted, Windows Vista had been a bit of a pig (initially), so we saw a huge delta in the more mature Windows 7 offering. Still, this product effectively killed Apple’s hitherto successful Mac vs. PC campaign because it was so good.   

Really, you just can’t be credible saying something sucks that worked this good.  

IE9, which is still in beta at the moment, broke from being a Firefox copycat and got out ahead of the technology curve by being much more aggressive with hardware acceleration.  

This represented Microsoft taking a huge risk with a major offering and the result was a vastly faster browsing experience.  

Microsoft isn’t known for taking risks like this or for being anything but a fast follower, with IE 9 they stepped out of the pack and that behavior isn’t old school Microsoft at all.  

Kinect was initially offered to Apple but they are such a pain to work with that the folks gave up and went to Microsoft.

Now, stop for a moment, recall that Apple got the iPod software (partially) because Portal Player wasn’t getting anywhere with IBM. While this is one data point it does suggest that the next iPod, if the idea comes from outside of Apple, might be more likely to end up with Microsoft. 

So Xbox Kinect resulted from Microsoft being a better company to do business with than Apple.

Who would have thought that a year ago? And, of course, Kinect is a big hit. 

Similarly, Windows Phone 7 isn’t a poor man’s copy of the iPhone but seeks to differentiate on a number of vectors.

Unlike other vendors who seem to be treating Android as a way to make an iPhone copy, Microsoft has moved to excel and differentiate on ease of use over Apple. 

While initial sales volumes are low due largely to supply shortages this is Microsoft not copying someone else but actually creating something new and different.  

There is risk to this approach but it is vastly better, to me anyway, than just trying to build a cheaper iPhone. 

Bing was actually making inroads last year and became a key source for Black Friday Shoppers. While most still favor Google this platform has stopped being a bad joke and turned into a contender this year and even Apple seemed to prefer it over Google.   

Again, who would have thought that even possible last year?  

Advertising was a word that for most of last decade I doubted Microsoft could spell. But last year, oh my god, they wrapped both Windows 7 and Windows Phone 7 with some of the most impressive marketing I’ve ever seen.   

Not even Apple is at the level of Windows Phone 7 which has ads followed by product placement in TV shows and people actually using a key feature in the show. Only Hyundai is marketing at this level that I can see at the moment and this is like watching someone that seemed to just have learned to walk suddenly enter and win a marathon.  

As a result, Microsoft’s image is dramatically better across the board than it was a year ago.

Wrapping Up: Most Improved?

If we look at Google who is currently being sued by everyone and their brother for Android, is struggling with Google TV problems, and has an increasing list of failed or marginal products and compare it against Microsoft last year, well you’d think the two firms changed places.

Remember, prior to 2009 Google seemed to do no wrong while Microsoft seemed only to screw up. But last year both companies’ luck changed suddenly Microsoft seems to be firing on all 12 cylinders again particularly when it comes to marketing their image and products.   

As we look back I find two things amazing: one, that a company can improve as much as Microsoft has and two, that Google feels the need to not only repeat Microsoft’s mistakes but seems to excel at doing so.  

Who do you think the most improved company in tech was last year? Do you agree that Google and Microsoft have seemed to have changed places?

Rob Enderle is one of the last Inquiry Analysts. Inquiry Analysts are paid to stay up to date on current events and identify trends and either explain the trends or make suggestions, tactical and strategic, on how to best take advantage of them. Currently, he provides his services to most of the major technology and media companies.  The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer.