Microsoft Is The Very Antithesis Of Strategy

on July 5, 2014
Reading Time: 9 minutes

Thus the highest form of generalship is to balk the enemy’s plans; the next best is to prevent the junction of the enemy’s forces; the next in order is to attack the enemy’s army in the field; and the worst policy of all is to besiege walled cities. ~ Sun Tzu, The Art Of War

Microsoft could learn much from Sun Tzu. Over the past fifteen to twenty years, Microsoft has engaged in the very worst kind of generalship. Microsoft has allowed their competitors to join forces and successfully scheme against them. Microsoft has responded to the successes of their competitors by forswearing their strongest weapons, abandoning their strongest defensive positions and rushing to attack their competitors wherever they may be, even if those battlefields were located where Microsoft was at its weakest and their competitors were are at their strongest. When these attacks inevitably failed, Microsoft resorted to wars of attrition. Yet in these wars of attrition, it was Microsoft, not their opponents, who suffered most, taking disproportionally greater losses than they inflicted.

There are some roads not to follow; some troops not to strike; some cities not to assault; and some ground which should not be contested. ~ Sun Tzu

Microsoft’s approach is the very antithesis of a strategy. Here are five principles of war. See how Microsoft violates them over and over again.

Principle #1: Concentration

The principles of war, not merely one principle, can be condensed into a single word – ‘concentration’. But for truth this needs to be amplified as the ‘concentration of strength against weakness’. ~ B. H. Liddell Hart

Microsoft’s strategy over the past two decades has been the very opposite of concentration. Instead of acting, they react — lashing out in multiple, uncoordinated directions. A good strategy forces the opponent to compete on a battlefield where they have no chance of winning. Microsoft does the opposite. They pick fights they don’t need to fight, and they fight those battles on their opponent’s home turf, where their opponent is at their very best and Microsoft is at its very weakest.

Principle #2: Avoid Frontal Assaults

From the beginning of organized warfare, frontal attacks against prepared defenses have usually failed, a fact written large in military history for all generals to see. ~ Bevin Alexander, How Great Generals Win

The essence of strategy is to play to your strengths while taking advantage on your opponent’s weaknesses. Microsoft routinely flips this on its head, going out of its way to fight on battlefields of its opponent’s choosing — battlefields that emphasize the strengths of Microsoft’s opponent’s and minimize Microsoft’s own strengths.

It is a military axiom not to advance uphill against the enemy, nor to oppose him when he comes downhill. ~ Sun Tzu, The Art of War

In military terms, Microsoft does not just seek out the enemy — they look for them on the highest, most fortified hill, bristling with weapons — then they march straight at ’em.

To refrain from intercepting an enemy whose banners are in perfect order, to refrain from attacking an army drawn up in calm and confident array:–this is the art of studying circumstances. ~ Sun Tzu, The Art of War

Contrary to the art of war, Microsoft just LOVES to make frontal assaults against the enemy while their banners are in perfect order.

The Spartans do not ask how many the enemies are but where they are. ~ Agis Ii, King Of Sparta

One may admire the bravado, the daring, and the courage of both the Spartans and Microsoft, but attacking the enemy where the enemy is strongest was not, is not and never will be sound strategy.

So in war, the way is to avoid what is strong and to strike at what is weak. ~ Sun Tzu, The Art of War

Example #1: iPod

In 2001, Apple introduced the iPod. By 2004, it was a smash success. Microsoft reacted, rather than acted. Instead of asking themselves WHY they needed to enter the MP3 market or even WHETHER they needed to enter the MP3 market, they attacked — first with their software licensed PlaysForSure, and later with their own Zune branded hardware.

From a strategic standpoint, Microsoft’s move to create the Zune was inane and bordering on the insane. Its strategy:

1) Obliged Microsoft to betray its existing allies (hardware manufacturing partners);
2) Required Microsoft to abandon its greatest and most powerful weapon (licensing software to hardware manufacturers);
3) Compelled Microsoft to fight with unfamiliar weapons (hardware);
4) Forced Microsoft to fight on the battlefield of its opponent’s choosing and where its opponent could could leverage its strongest assets (integrated software and hardware).

Therefore, those skilled in war bring the enemy to the field of battle and are not brought there by him. – Sun Tzu

It’s the equivalent of a lion — the king of his domain — abandoning the land in order to fight a shark at sea. What madness! It was a strategy that favored Apple and handicapped Microsoft in every meaningful way. It was, in fact, not a strategy at all but the abandonment of strategy. Instead of pitting their strength against their opponent’s weakness, Microsoft pitted their weakness against Apple’s strength. Microsoft’s defeat was virtually guaranteed.

Example #2: Bing

Google was founded in 1998 and soon became a very real threat to Microsoft. A response by Microsoft was appropriate and called for…but not the response Microsoft made. As usual, Microsoft went right at ’em by challenging Google where Google was strongest and where Microsoft was nonexistent — in search.

Let’s examine this from a strategic perspective:

  1. Attack opponent where opponent is strongest. Check.
  2. Attack opponent with a weapon with which you have little or no expertise (search engine/machine language). ((Of course, Microsoft has plenty of experience and expertise in search now, but at a tremendous price in both money and in time. Lost money, Microsoft can afford. Lost time, not so much.)) Check.
  3. Attack opponent where they live, thus guaranteeing that they will they will be inspired to fight with desperation in order to ensure their very survival. Check.
  4. Attack where even success gains you little or nothing. Check.

Do not throw your weight into a stroke whilst your opponent is on guard – whilst he is well placed to parry or evade it. The experience of history shows that, save against a much inferior opponent, no effective stroke is possible until his power of resistance or evasion is paralysed. ~ B. H. Liddell Hart, Strategy

Unsurprisingly, Microsoft’s search engine efforts haven’t significantly hurt Google. Worse still, they’ve actually HELPED Google. When Microsoft pitted Bing against Google Search, they created a legitimate, albeit ineffective, competitor. And that, in turn, meant Google was not a monopoly in search and not subject to government anti-trust and anti-monopoly oversight.

As when snow is squeezed into a snowball, direct pressure has always the tendency to harden and consolidate the resistance of an opponent, and the more compact it becomes the more difficult it is to melt. ~ B. H. Liddell Hart

I will readily concede that Bing has served, and continues to serve, Microsoft well on the back end. But on the back end is where it should have remained. By attacking Google directly where Google was strongest, Microsoft has lost billions upon billions of dollars and the result has been to make Google Search more, not less, secure.


Great generals know a direct attack, on the other hand, consolidates an enemy’s defenses and, even if he is defeated, merely forces him back on his reserves and his supplies. ~ Bevin Alexander, How Great Generals Win

Over the past 20 years, Microsoft’s only stratagem has been to directly assault their competitors where their competitors are strongest. This bull-headed non-strategy was formed in the late nineties when Microsoft truly did have overwhelming superiority. Back then, what Microsoft wanted, Microsoft took.

It is the rule in war, if our forces are ten to the enemy’s one, to surround him; if five to one, to attack him; if twice as numerous, to divide our army into two. If equally matched, we can offer battle; if slightly inferior in numbers, we can avoid the enemy; if quite unequal in every way, we can flee from him. ~ Sun Tzu, The Art of War

It’s not the late nineties anymore and Microsoft no longer outnumbers their competitors ten to one — or outnumbers them at all — but they still act as if they do. When one is outnumbered, one should flee, not fight. It may not sound like the noble thing to do, but it’s very sound strategy.

STRATEGY Definition on Blackboard (business marketing planning)

Principle #3: Never Reinforce Failure

A general must never reinforce failure. ~ Clausewitz ((Excerpt From: Charles River Editors. “The Top 5 Greatest Generals: Alexander the Great, Hannibal, Julius Caesar, Genghis Khan, and Napoleon Bonaparte.”))

One of the myths that surrounds Microsoft is they “get it right on the third try”. I heard a pundit say this just last week in regard to the Microsoft Surface.


When was the last time Microsoft “got it right” on the third iteration? Or any subsequent iteration? The last time I recall Microsoft out-iterating an opponent was with Netscape, which was some 15 years ago. Or perhaps one could be thinking of the Xbox ((I would argue Xbox is a tactical master stroke but a strategic blunder — but that is an argument for another day.)) where Microsoft went five billion dollars in the red before even starting to make a return. However, those long ago victories can provide Microsoft with little solace today. Microsoft is no longer the 900-pound guerrilla it was a decade ago. And I think it is fair to say Apple is no Netscape and Google is no Sony PlayStation 2.

Do not renew an attack along the same line (or in the same form) after it has once failed. ~ B. H. Liddell Hart, Strategy

With products like Windows Phone 7 (now 8), Surface, and Windows 8, Microsoft is not iterating faster and catching up to their opponents. Far from it. They’re falling farther and farther behind. And it doesn’t matter anyway because the race they’r running in is already over.

Once a problem is solved, you compete by rethinking the problem, not making a slightly better version of the current solution. ~ Benedict Evans (@BenedictEvans)

Windows Phone 8 is an attempt to solve a problem that has already been solved by Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android. Surface is an attempt to pretend Apple didn’t solve the tablet problem when they introduced the iPad. Windows 8 is an attempt to ignore their decade-long failure to transplant a desktop operating user interface onto a tablet form factor.

Great generals do not repeat what has failed before. ~ Bevin Alexander, How Great Generals Win

Microsoft is not re-thinking the problem. They are simply failing at the same thing, in the same way, over and over again.

Principle #4: Avoid Sieges

The rule is, not to besiege walled cities if it can possibly be avoided. ~ Sun Tzu, The Art Of War

Microsoft simply does not quit. When they fail to win in the open field, they settle in for a long, drawn out siege. Yet when has this strategy ever worked for Microsoft? When, in recent history, has Microsoft ever overcome simply by carrying on?

These sieges have only led to Microsoft growing progressively weaker while their competitors grow ever stronger. It’s the exact opposite effect that the strategy is supposed to accomplish.

You may admire Microsoft’s doggedness — I do — and you may admire their perseverance — I do — but you simply cannot admire their strategy. Persistence is one thing. Pigheaded stubbornness is another thing altogether.

Attrition is a two-edged weapon and, even when skillfully wielded, puts a strain on the users. ~ B.H. Liddel Hart, Strategy

Attrition is a long, slow, arduous and costly grind. It should only be used as a last resort. And its use makes no sense at all when it costs the aggressor more than it costs the besieged. That way lies only exhaustion, collapse and defeat.

To adopt the method of attrition is not only a confession of stupidity, but a waste of strength, endangering both the chances during the combat and the profit of victory. ~ B. H. Liddell Hart

Principle #5: Keep Your Object Always In Mind

Keep your object always in mind, while adapting your plan to circumstances. Realize that there are more ways than one of gaining an object, but take heed that every objective should bear on the object. And in considering possible objectives weigh their possibility of attainment with their service to the object if attained – to wander down a sidetrack is bad, but to reach a dead end is worse. ~ B. H. Liddell Hart, Strategy

Microsoft should take the above paragraph and pin it to every door, in every office in Redmond…

…except first, of course, they should identify what their object is.

Microsoft Has No Vision, No Mission, No Object To Guide Them

Everything wrong with Microsoft’s strategy comes down to this:

[pullquote]A person who aims at nothing is sure to hit it.[/pullquote]

Microsoft doesn’t know what their objective is.

Without that compass, without that “north star” to guide them, Microsoft is like a rudderless ship, subject to the pull and sway of every wind and every current.

Manage The Top Line

Somebody once told me, “Manage the top line, and the bottom line will follow.” What’s the top line? It’s things like, why are we doing this in the first place? What’s our strategy? What are customers saying? How responsive are we? Do we have the best products and the best people? Those are the kind of questions you have to focus on. ~ Steve Jobs

Does Microsoft ask itself such questions? If so, their actions certainly don’t reflect it.

In fact, I double-dog dare you to articulate Microsoft’s vision or its mission. The following is the best I could discover. I like the passion expressed, but I assure you, it’s not nearly specific enough to act as the guidance Microsoft so desperately needs:

We are obsessed with empowering people to do more and be more. ~ @Satyanadella (5/20/14)

Microsoft Needs To Re-Define Itself

— Microsoft has forgotten what they are good at.
— Microsoft has forgotten what business they are in.
— Microsoft has forgotten who they are.

In Nadella, Microsoft has a new CEO whom I admire. However, if he has a new vision for Microsoft, he has not yet clearly articulated it — and he needs to do just that.

Whenever anything is being accomplished, it is being done, I have learned, by a monomaniac with a mission. ~ Peter Drucker

Microsoft must redefine itself — must reset their vision. And then then need to shout that vision from the rooftops.

The very essence of leadership is you have to have a vision. It’s got to be a vision you articulate clearly and forcefully on every occasion.  You can’t blow an uncertain trumpet. ~ Theodore Hesburgh


Dead battles, like dead generals, hold the military mind in their dead grip…. ~ Barbara Tuchman, The Guns of August

Past triumphs and past glories seem to hold Microsoft in their dead grip too. Microsoft is still fighting yesterday’s wars with yesterday’s no-longer-existing weapons. They need to acknowledge reality as it is and change their strategy accordingly.

The only thing harder than getting a new idea into the military mind is to get an old one out. ~ B. H. Liddell Hart

In my Insider’s article (subscription required) , I’ll talk about the strategy that Microsoft could — but almost certainly will not — follow.

Career Decision