When a Company Loses Its Way

By  Mitch Morrison, Vice President & Group Editor

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When Steve Ballmer recently announced his retirement from Microsoft, his departure did not exactly command the prose used to describe his revered predecessor, Bill Gates.

And for good reason: Ballmer lost touch with consumers. For all his efforts to protect the relevance of Windows, Ballmer failed to look out the window and see a shifting market that boasts portability, customization and product democratization.

“When we first did the Internet work in ’95 to ’97, incredibly talented people unleashed did amazing things,” Brad Silverberg, a technology investor and former Microsoft executive who led its Windows 95 development effort, told The Wall Street Journal.

Today, however, “so much energy is expended on repressing good things to play defense and protect the castle,” Silverberg lamented.

It wasn’t as if Microsoft was lacking creativity and ingenuity. In many cases, the Seattle-area behemoth latched onto technologies such as smartphones, touch screens, “smart” cars and wristwatches that read sports scores aloud long before Apple or Google did. But instead of feeding such innovation, Ballmer’s Microsoft killed promising projects if they threatened the company’s cash cows.

Now there are tremors that the tech giant has calcified. The pacesetter of the 1990s faces becoming a dinosaur just a little more than a decade later.

For BlackBerry, the pre-iPhone preferred choice for corporate runners using their mobile phones for business emails, the demise has been even faster. How many of us used to pull out our Black- Berry to check emails during a conference, a meeting, a run to the restroom? It was our device in a 24-7 world, and it was highly effective.

BlackBerry owned 51% of the North American smartphone market only four years ago, according to research firm Gartner. Company executives predicted greater growth. But Google, Samsung, Apple and others engineered and pioneered. They looked beyond emails and unveiled enhanced cameras, countless apps, thoughtful interfaces and greater designs. Their investment was not merely on product, but on promise: a pledge to continually innovate, to turn curiosity into cutting-edge solutions. Not surprisingly, BlackBerry’s market share has evaporated to only 3.4%, and the company is for sale.

Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman recently wrote about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s declining leadership in the context of the world stage. Friedman suggested there are two kinds of countries today: high imagination-enabling countries (HIEs) and low imagination-enabling countries (LIEs): “That is, countries that nurture innovation and innovators and those that don’t.”

Applying Friedman’s geopolitical assessment to our tech innovators, Microsoft and BlackBerry are the equivalent of Russia’s Putin, once-hungry companies that climbed onto the world stage, then fell because of corporate intransigence and a deaf ear to the consumer.

Recently, while rushing to a train at Union Station in Washington, D.C., I picked up a beverage and snack at Pret A Manger. The friendly clerk rang up the transaction and handed me a few napkins. Made from 100% recycled material (see photo), the napkins were not only useful, but also communicated the eatery’s core values: “Made Today (Gone Today). Every night we give our fresh food to the hungry rather than selling it the next day.

“It’s the right thing to do.”

As a concerned citizen of the world, I loved the company’s message. As a customer, I wanted to come back and support the cause. The napkin’s message continued: “If our team get all over excited and hand you huge bunches of napkins (which you don’t need or want) please give them the evil eye. Waste not want not.” Next time I’m in a hurry, I will pull out a paper-thin napkin with a message, not a smartphone from a company that lost its smarts and stopped listening to its customers years ago. 

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