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Microsoft: The reality behind the image

CNET News.com's Charles Cooper explains why the company remains wildly successful despite a string of mediocre product launches.

There's something about the slow-starter strategy that works like an absolute charm for Microsoft. Throughout its history, the company has recovered from mediocre product launches that ultimately morph into smash hits.

By now, Microsoft has it down to an art. Is it method or madness? Probably a little bit of both, but more about that in a moment.

So it is that the newest rendition of Windows Media Center introduced earlier this week received a tentative thumbs-up from the digerati. When you consider the kludgy design of the first release of Media Center, this is no small achievement. It also says something about how this company goes about its job.

Microsoft has carefully cultivated an image of being an outfit that outthinks and outinnovates rivals.
Microsoft has carefully cultivated an image of being an outfit that outthinks and outinnovates rivals. To be sure, the company does employ some of the brightest people in the computer industry. Under the capable direction of , for example, Microsoft Research only trails IBM when it comes to turning out technology patents.

All that looks great on paper, but does it translate into sterling design and implementation? In truth, the record suggests that the secret behind Microsoft's success owes more to applied perspiration (not to mention an occasional sotto voce whisper of encouragement, Tony Soprano style) than to divine inspiration.

Consider how long it took Microsoft to labor away at building a graphical operating system. When it debuted, Windows 1.0 was arguably no better than the contemporary GEM graphical user interface from Digital Research. Critics rightly dunned it for being a pale imitation of the work generated by Xerox PARC. Windows 2.0, which came out a couple of years later, was equally mediocre. Only with the 1990 arrival of Windows 3.0 did Microsoft figure out the memory management improvements that let users exploit the capabilities of the 286 and 386 microprocessors. (Even then, many folks say Windows wasn't worth spit until version 3.1.)

Windows NT followed a similar script. The product was a memory hog--and this back in 1993, when memory cost a bundle. It took Microsoft another three long years to pretty NT up with a Windows 95-like interface and the sort of beefed-up administration controls that made it popular with the IT community.

And it took Microsoft three long tries to catch up to Netscape in the Web browser business. That's not to mention the bully tactics along the way that ultimately got the company's higher ups into hot water with the Justice Department.

But Microsoft will have to unseat Apple before it can hope to dominate the digital lifestyle.
Years ago, I inadvertently incurred the wrath of Paul Maritz, who then was a big-shot Microsoft muckety-muck. In a column, I suggested that Microsoft did a great job listening to customers and fixing what was missing, not because the company developed "wow" technologies. That argument got under Maritz's skin, and he let me know about it.

But was I that off base?

Maritz's ego was bruised, but I was paying a compliment. Microsoft had perfected a system to incorporate customer feedback and improve upon existing products. That goes a long way toward explaining how Microsoft came to be No. 1 in its field. But that's a lot different than spinning tales of a techno hothouse in the Pacific Northwest that consistently churns out excellent tools.

Xbox was a huge hit for Microsoft from the day it hit the shelves. On the other end of the spectrum, Microsoft Bob was dumber than a sack of hammers and deserved every bit of ridicule hurled its way. I wouldn't get carried away in either case, since Microsoft's performance is usually somewhere between the extremes.

While Media Center remains a work in progress, the company has been working out the kinks. So far, Microsoft has unit sales in excess of a million. The company also claims to have about 100 industry partners around the world, more than double last year's count. But Microsoft will have to unseat Apple Computer before it can hope to dominate the digital lifestyle. And that's an obstacle that I think is just too steep to hurdle. More about that in a future column.