The dance floor empties as Microsoft keeps on 'dad dancing'

Oh, Microsoft. I’m starting to feel sorry for you.

As we all get old, there usually comes a moment when you know you’re out of touch. I remember my dad asking me once if I had been out with any “hot chicks” lately. The look I gave him told him that was his moment.

As a journalist, it will come on the day I say confidently that some new gadget will never be a success, only to see everyone and their dog carrying one six months later. (I have a horrible feeling that Google Glasses might be just that for me – people choosing to walk around in tech specs? Really? Now watch it fly…)

Microsoft is 38 this year. And clearly, that’s not yet old enough to have its moment.

I wrote in an earlier blog post that the question of whether Microsoft will “get it” will be pivotal in the technology world this year. Sadly, the evidence is only piling up that Redmond still lives in another world, one that probably last existed around 2006 when Bill Gates first stepped back from his old day job.

I say “sadly” because I have always been a supporter of Microsoft. I grew up with its PCs. I never agreed with the criticisms of Windows as a platform – I knew it, it did everything I wanted both at home and at work, and using Office was second nature. Even when it became clear Vista was a dog, I stuck with it because it was familiar and comfortable. My home laptop is still a Vista machine – even though I use it a lot less these days because my Google Nexus 10 tablet is so convenient and enjoyable.

But now, I constantly come across things that make me shake my head in sorrow for Microsoft’s future. Here’s some examples.

Every year, Microsoft invites a variety of different interest groups to Seattle for an update on its plans – a bunch of security experts one month, top academics the next, then CIOs, and so forth. Talking to one or two people that have attended recent events, the phrase “Microsoft just doesn’t get it” is their repeated anthem.

One guest at Redmond highlighted the moment when this large crowd of highly influential people arrived in a conference room, and promptly pulled out their iPads, Android tablets or Macbook Airs to take notes. There was barely a Windows device among them – this group of people chosen by Microsoft as their key influencers.

Last year, Microsoft raised its prices twice – by 15% on products such as Exchange, Lync and Windows Server; and volume licensing increased by up to 25% to “create price consistency across Europe”.

And that’s not to mention the shameful attempt to remove discounts for some charities.

Now, the introductory pricing for Windows 8 upgrades is being withdrawn, increasing the price for anyone wanting to move to the flagship new operating system, just as the PC market starts to see one of its biggest ever declines.

What sensible organisation increases its prices when it sees its market in decline and flocking to competitors?

There’s also a great story on The Register, here, citing sources that say Microsoft blames its PC maker partners for the lacklustre sales of Windows 8 over Christmas. The story says that manufacturers told Microsoft they were unwilling to develop highly specified Windows 8 tablets that would cost too much and fail to sell.

Microsoft’s partnerships with PC makers have been the bedrock of its success. Those distribution networks are the very reason Windows and Office became so ubiquitous.

But now, for perhaps the first time, even those ultra-loyal PC firms, whose own success once depended on Microsoft’s relentless product update cycle, are no longer playing ball.

We have a choice, and we’re not choosing Microsoft. The world has changed. Even some CIOs are now publicly saying they see a future where they won’t have any Windows products in their organisation. Until very recently, that wasn’t even an option.

At this point in the narrative of this post, I would usually put in the counter argument, and point out the reasons why Microsoft can and will turn things around. But it’s getting harder and harder to see what the company is actually doing to that end.

The Surface tablet? I tried a Surface RT and hated it – confusing, non-intuitive and endlessly frustrating with its stupid dual interface. The Surface Pro tablet, due out next month, the product that Microsoft hopes will bridge the tablet and corporate IT worlds? Not at a reputed $1000 each it won’t, no matter how good it is.

Windows Phone? At best vying with BlackBerry for distant third in the smartphone market – just look at Nokia’s sales, which remain light years behind Apple and Android.

Microsoft is suffering from a classic mistake of talking only to its friends. It surrounds itself with people who think the company and its products are great. Dissenters are ignored, because the friends (and CEO Steve Ballmer) are convinced the critics don’t know what they are talking about. Nobody there wants to listen to bad news, yet the room full of friends seems to have more space to move about than it used to.

But we still need Microsoft. Pricing and licensing aside, it still understands the corporate IT market, even if its hold on end-user devices is weakening. I really hope Microsoft “gets it” soon. There is no pleasure to be taken from watching the world’s most successful software company getting old and out of touch, revelling in its own “dad dancing” moves even as the dance floor empties in embarrassment.

I should know – you should see my dancing…