MicroHoo: corporate penis envy?

After reading endless pieces about Microsoft’s obsession with search, I am forced to offer the following theory: penis envy (from Wikipedia):

I worked with Freud in Vienna. We broke over the concept of penis envy. He thought it should be limited to women – Woody Allen in Zelig

While not the same kind of penis envy as that typically referred to in psychoanalysis, the phrase “penis envy” or “small penis syndrome” is also sometimes used to describe the envy of a male over another male’s penis. Although this subconscious or conscious envy may solely be based on the idea that a larger penis is universally more satisfying and appealing to a sexual partner, other implications arise from the fact that a large penis has been seen in many cultures as a symbol of high masculinity, dominance and power.

Microsoft was once motivated by its own Big Hairy Audacious Goal: “a computer on every desk and in every home.” They achieved that goal, and ever since, they’ve drifted. Now their only goal seems to be to stay on top of the heap. They need to stop focusing on eating other people’s lunch and start thinking deeply about what kind of goals might stretch the company once again. “Organize all the world’s information” is already taken, but there are a lot of other things that need doing, that Microsoft is uniquely capable of, and that would energize the creativity and passion of Microsoft’s employees. What’s more (as I’ll get to later) there is a much bigger game afoot, and one that Microsoft would be far wiser to focus on.

Meanwhile, Yahoo! has let itself be defined by the same kind of penis envy. Here is a business that has beaten Google in area after area, that is unquestionably the #1 media company on the net, and yet has let itself be defined by the one area in which it is #2 — and where it could be much more profitable and successful by partnering with #1 than by competing with them.

So, my advice to Yahoo!: continue with your plan to outsource search to Google, just like you did before 2002, and plow those increased profits and reduced costs into your own innovation, strengthening the areas where you are #1, exploring new ideas that will make YOUR users insanely happy, and generally focusing on what makes Yahoo! great, rather than on what doesn’t. That is, unless Microsoft makes you so good a deal for your search assets that you just can’t say no. But either way, let yourself be quit of the destructive competition and focus on adding real value for your users.

My advice to Microsoft: outsource your search to Google too!

Of course, I don’t really expect you to do that. As Todd Bishop wrote in a piece called The Rest of the Motto back in 2004:

…people who have been following the company since the early days point out that the stated goal was actually, “A computer on every desk and in every home, running Microsoft software.” In an October 1995 interview with Fortune magazine, for example, Bill Gates said: ” … I still believe in our vision — a computer on every desk and in every home, all running Microsoft software.”

Microsoft has long operated on the model of platform as lever for lock-in and competitive advantage, or as Tolkien put it, “One ring to rule them all.” But as I’ve been saying in my advocacy about Web 2.0 from the beginning, there is another model, represented by both Linux and the Internet, that might be called small pieces loosely joined. (I don’t use the term in quite the same way as in David Weinberger’s eponymous book (linked just previously), but the phrase is just too right to ignore.) The Unix philosophy, laid out so brilliantly in The Unix Programming Environment, is of a network of cooperating tools, each doing one thing well. This philosophy took root on the internet as well, and has proven to be an enormous engine of innovation.

I believe that we’re collectively working on an Internet Operating System, and that it will ultimately look more like Unix than it looks like Windows. That is, it will be an aggregate of best of breed tools produced by an army of independent actors, all playing by the same rules so that those tools work together to produce a whole greater than the sum of the parts.

Fighting over search is a bit like the Free Software Foundation re-implementing cat, ls, sort, and all the other Unix utilities that were already available in the Berkeley distributions of Unix. The real problem was solved by someone outside the FSF, when Linus Torvalds wrote a kernel, a missing piece that became the gravitational center of Linux, the center around which all of the other projects could coalesce, which made them more valuable not by competing with them but by completing them.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that there isn’t enormous room for competition, and that competition isn’t good for the market. Compete where you have ideas that can really change the game, but don’t play me-too.

So let’s assume that Google has won at search, or close enough to make no difference. Is Microsoft better off trying to reimplement cat and ls, or trying to figure out what’s still missing from the Internet Operating System? While they are locked in penis envy, all the really cute girls are going out with startups :-)

So think hard about the future internet OS: ubiquitous computing, with a computer not just on every desktop and in every home, or even every phone and every camera, but in everyday devices, clothing, shopping carts, cars, pens, toys, buildings, roads, the power grid, even human bodies–and yes, lots of server farms. An infrastructure of real-time data services across that “network of networks,” with search (and search-based-advertising) only one of many such services. As David Stutz once wrote: Useful software written above the level of the single device will command high margins for a long time to come.

This is the real Web 2.0, the web as platform. Search and its advertising economy is only one subsystem of that platform.

I know there are lots of people at Microsoft Research already working on key parts of this vision. Get behind them. Pour resources into the future, not the past. Meanwhile, there will be a lot of client devices in our connected future. And the connected devices that are the most successful will be the ones that are most open, the ones that are best for using ALL the services that are popping up out there, not just the ones that are part of a single vendor stack. The internet operating system is still in its infancy, perhaps at the level of Windows 3.1 (a simple, flawed GUI skin over DOS) or the GNU system without the Linux kernel. Microsoft has an enormous opportunity to build client software and devices that are ideal citizens of the software cooperative that the internet is becoming.

(Aside: Apple’s apparent success with an “own the stack, from the device to cloud” strategy is misleading. With both the iPod and the iPhone, a key element of success is precisely the device’s openness to what Apple does not own. Imagine an iPod where you could only buy music from the Apple music store instead of ripping your own CDs (this is Amazon’s mistake with the Kindle). Imagine an iphone without the Safari browser (opening a world of web apps to the phone) or the Google Maps application. Apple owns key elements of the stack, but it’s a permeable stack, and getting more so.)

Learn from the best, partner with the best, fill in the gaps, and build for the future. Above all, remember that great companies have “big, hairy audacious goals.” Energize Microsoft by pursuing a seemingly impossible goal that can change the world for the better.

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