NEW YORK — Microsoft's next CEO will have to solve a problem. And that problem won't be the effect of the Internet on the company's products, or the fact that Apple just made its business software package free, or that there may be no place to sit down in Microsoft's Redmond, Wash., executive suites thanks to predecessor Steve Ballmer's penchant for tossing chairs across rooms when he got angry. That problem is Google.
The Google Problem was something Ballmer wrestled with throughout his tenure, without success, and it's not going away. No competitor has devoted more resources to hollowing out the market for Microsoft's core products, or achieved more success in the process.
The news about Apple's challenge to Microsoft's Office only highlighted this, because in targeting that enormously successful bundle (which includes Word, Excel, Powerpoint, and Outlook), Apple is only following Google's lead — and Google hasn't had to give away a product for free to do it. One of the under-reported highlights of Google's earnings results last week was the 85% growth it showed in "Other Revenue, which rose to $1.23 billion. "Other" at Google means primarily its Enterprise software division and its own suite of productivity Apps, which has been slowly but steadily carving away at Microsoft's bread-and-butter revenue source: the bulk seat licenses it sells to corporate customers who want to install its software across hundreds or thousands of PCs.
Meanwhile Google's success at making Android the default smartphone operating system for the non-Apple handset manufacturers has done far more damage to Microsoft than to Apple, with Windows Phone struggling below 5% of the U.S. market. With tablets and other mobile devices fast supplanting PCs for many users, Microsoft's ownership of the dominant desktop platform thus becomes less relevant every day.
But of course Google hasn't stopped there, using its Chrome OS and Chromebooks to attack the bottom of that still-huge desktop market, offering insanely cheap machines to lure even more consumers away from Windows.
Just because the next Microsoft CEO needs to solve this problem, however, doesn't mean a solution actually exists — unless that person is willing to make a far more dramatic gesture than Ballmer ever contemplated. And yet dramatic gestures have been a hallmark of previous technology industry rebound, and Microsoft doesn't have to look very far into its own past to find examples.
Twenty years ago, Lou Gerstner transformed himself into a turnaround legend at IBM through his response to a similar competitive challenge that was then eating Big Blue from within: the Microsoft Problem. IBM had spent most of the '80s and early '90s watching the desktop PC take over the corporate computer world, helping Microsoft (via IBM's own decision to make MS-DOS and its successor Windows OS into a standard by putting it on the original IBM PC) gain control of the computer industry. IBM, when it belatedly realized its mistake, had tried to regain control of the desktop by introducing a competing (and by most accounts, technically superior) operating system, OS/2. But like Windows Phone today, OS/2 could never command more than a small slice of market share.
So shortly after his arrival at IBM, Gerstner killed it — and a legend was born. The death of OS/2 came to symbolize Gerstner's transformation of the company from monolithic platform owner to nimble, customer-focused service provider.
When Steve Jobs returned to Apple in 1996 (re-assuming the CEO title from Gil Amelio in 1997) he needed to solve Apple's own Microsoft Problem: the long-standing legal fight between the two companies over whether Windows had too-closely copied the "look and feel" of Apple's Macintosh OS. With Apple on life support and in risk of running out of cash, Jobs' dramatic gesture was to call a truce. Apple agreed to work out a settlement to the lawsuit and accepted a $150 million investment from Microsoft along with (ironically) a commitment from Bill Gates, delivered via a satellite appearance during a Jobs presentation at the MacWorld trade show, to keep supplying Microsoft Office on the Mac platform for the next five years. Apple's fanatic fans who stoked themselves on Microsoft screamed, but Apple survived and prospered.
What could the new Microsoft CEO do that would have a similar impact? The obvious move is to ape Gerstner and kill Windows Phone. That would be an awkward choice given Ballmer's recent decision to acquire Nokia and make its devices the Windows Phone leaders, but it's not like Microsoft doesn't have the cash to paper over yet another failed acquisition. It did that in 2012 with its writedown of its deal for online advertising giant AQuantive.
Maybe there's room to mimic Jobs, too, and seek an accommodation with Google as well. Microsoft obviously doesn't need an investor. But if it kills Windows Phone, it would need a mobile operating system … well, just don't say you're surprised when Larry Page makes a satellite appearance and Google representatives, who were all too recently banned from it, are once again allowed to attend an upcoming Microsoft Worldwide Partner Conference.
Chip Bayers is a N.Y.-based journalist covering technology and business. He has been an editor at Adweek, Newser and Wired Digital, and was previously a staff writer for Wired Magazine.