Frankly Speaking: Twelve to compete

Last week, Microsoft unveiled what it called "Windows Principles: Twelve Tenets to Promote Competition." Stop laughing. It could happen. Really. True, Microsoft's "voluntary principles" mainly consist of things the company already has to do in the wake of its disastrous antitrust trial a few years back. And true, Microsoft's spokesman promoting these competitive principles -- its chief competition officer, so to speak -- was the company's top lawyer, Brad Smith.

Someone cynical might think this was just a publicity stunt as Microsoft faces a new round of antitrust troubles.

But maybe -- just maybe -- Microsoft still just doesn't get competition.

Look, consider what the company says it will do to promote competition: not sabotage PC makers' ability to configure PCs with non-Microsoft software. And not retaliate against vendors that do so. And not cram Windows Live down users' throats. And make Windows programming interfaces, protocols and patents available (but not necessarily for free). And be in favor of Net neutrality.

Pretty lame, eh? It's largely what Microsoft has already been forced to do by the courts. But that's what you get when your ideas of competition come from your lawyer.

Microsoft can do better. It needs to do better, what with its market share eroding, its stock price stagnant and its reputation sinking. And as customers, we want Microsoft to do better.

But Microsoft thinks it just needs to do a little better at competition. A tweak here, a small fix of anticompetitive behavior there.

Wrong. Things have changed. A dozen legalistic "principles" are nice, but what Microsoft needs are action items -- and big ones at that.

So in the interest of lighting a fire under Microsoft and its rivals, here are 12 suggestions that would really promote competition at Microsoft:

-- Break up Windows. Do less integration, not more. Get rid of the monolithic structure and the dependencies it produces, and the complexity and fragility those dependencies create. Make Windows so modular that competitors can plug in their own versions of your features. Then make your features so good, no one will want the competition's.

-- Get that neat new stuff out of Microsoft Research's labs and on the street. Microsoft loves to talk about innovation. Show us some.

-- Encourage mashups. Don't just publish programming interfaces -- give away the glue and make it easy to use. Make people want to buy Windows or use Windows Live because it's great for creating new and wonderful stuff, not because it's the same dreary junk everyone uses.

-- Quit pretending you're not in the hardware business. You make mice, keyboards and game machines, and they sell. When you create "concepts" like Tablet PCs, they collapse. Create hardware products, brand them, and sell them.

-- Give up on technical lock-in with proprietary protocols and formats. It doesn't work, and it just irritates customers.

-- Stop using the words "technically impossible." Nobody really believes there's anything Microsoft can't do.

-- Create new markets. Don't worry about capturing 100% of them - so what if other vendors or open-source projects pick up the crumbs? Be visionary, make magic happen, then compete like hell on the fresh playing field you've made.

-- Embrace change. Right now, Microsoft fears it. Hire some entrepreneurs and set them to work creating a Windows-killer. Eat your own lunch before someone else does.

-- Seduce your customers. Don't lie to them, mislead them or threaten them. Draw them in by making them love you, not fear or hate or resent you.

-- Compete. Hard. With newer, better, faster, cleaner, smarter products and services. Make customers want to dig into their own pockets. Make them salivate. Make them lust after things they don't have to accept but really desire.

-- Be first, be on target, be unique. You win biggest when you're offering what customers want -- and nobody else has.

-- Quit following. Start leading. And soon you'll be promoting more competition than you know what to do with.

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