Microsoft's #1 Problem? It Has No Right Brain
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Remember the Scarecrow’s lament in The Wizard of Oz, “If only I had a brain?” If we were doing a consumer tech take on this classic, it seems to me investors could lament, “If only Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) had a right-brain.”
Before you Windows fans deem me the Wicked Writer, hear me out. For the record, I am typing this article on a PC – so no taunts of me being poisoned by the rotten Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL). I’m not saying Microsoft is lacking in gray matter. But I am proposing that Microsoft, as an entity, is strongly left-brained, and this is a major reason it has floundered for over a decade. As a counterpoint, Apple has prospered – an understatement – because it’s whole-brained. I’d venture to guess Google’s (NASDAQ: GOOG) “corporate brain,” as I’ll call it, falls somewhere in between Microsoft’s and Apple’s.
"Corporate Brain” a Big Part of Corporate Culture
“Corporate culture” is used to describe the attitudes, values, and overall tone of a company from the inside. It is usually thought to start at the top, with the tone the founder(s) set(s), and trickle down. So, it makes sense that’s likely the case with the corporate brain, too. For instance, if a founder is heavily left-brained, he/she will likely overly value left-brain thinking, so heavily leaning lefties will win in the hiring and promotion processes. Naturally, this will affect the company's products and services.
Left Said, Right Said
The two different sides, or hemispheres, of our brains are responsible for different manners of thinking. Most people have a distinct preference for one mode. However, some are more whole-brained and equally adept at both modes. It’s best to think of this as a spectrum.
Left-brain thinking focuses on logic, analysis, and accuracy. Right-brain focuses on aesthetics, feeling, and creativity. Here's a table to further flesh things out:
Gates Said, Jobs Said
By all accounts, Bill Gates is a mathematical and computer programming whiz. Both are highly left-brained activities. Look at the left-brain adjectives again -- they say "Bill Gates," don't they?
It seems to me Steve Jobs was whole-brained. While he could analyze and program, it's been widely acknowledged that Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak was the programming whiz. Wozniak engineered the Apple II series, considered one of the first commercially successful lines of personal computers. For his part, Jobs was among the first to see the commercial potential of Xerox PARC's mouse-driven graphical user interface (GUI). This led to the development of the Apple Lisa and, one year later, the MacIntosh. Apple's GUI is intuitive; Apple products are aesthetically-pleasing; Jobs was very creative. Recognize those three adjectives? They're either in the table or the right-brain description before the table.
Your Left-Brain Wants Specific (looking at parts) Examples?
Here are two instances which point to Microsoft falling short on right-brain thinking:
1. Brown Was Not the New Black
Anil Dash writes "A Blog About Making Culture." I found his 2006 piece written soon after the Zune's introduction both spot-on and entertaining. Here's a part of it:
The Problem Is, The Zune Is Brown
"In person, the device has a rich, warm color. The green tinge is innovative; I've never seen a consumer electronics device that tries for such a complicated, organic palette, and it's pulled off wonderfully. But instead of calling the color chocolate, or something else compelling and attractive, they named it brown, a color that has few positive associations except (possibly) UPS. Chocolate is desirable, and fuels passions. It's even a little bit sinful. Hell, you could play on the brown and green theme and call the color "tree."
But no, the color name is prosaic. And worse, it's a color combination that looks terrible on the web. There should be some kind of Photoshop Gizmodo filter where you can take a photo of a device and see how it'll look in a spy photo on a gadget blog -- that's where first impressions by early adopters and the press are going to be formed.
The failure of Brown represents a more profound problem with the Zune: A lack of vision..."
2. "Windows Live Search" Does Not Roll Off the Tongue
Yahoo! (NASDAQ: YHOO) and Google are both fun words to say. So, each of them paired with the word "Search" works. Further, both "Yahoo! Search" and "Google Search" are just three syllables.
Compare and contrast those terms to "Windows Live Search," Microsoft's initial name for its search feature. You still awake? Dull. Too long. And it begs the question, "Is there such a thing as a dead search?" And, in typical non-creative fashion, the word "Search" was initially included, likely because both Yahoo! and Google did so.
Someone turned on his/her right-brain light when the name was changed to "Bing." Fun. Short. And intuitively people likely get it's a search feature.
Words illicit strong associations -- and people will generally be more drawn to a product or service that has an appealing or fun association. Shakespeare was wrong -- a rose by any other name might not smell as sweet.
The Foolish Bottom Line
It does seem the neurons in Microsoft's right-brain have increased their firing of late. This jury of one is still out on how things will go. But, for consumer tech in general, I think the best bets are companies that have demonstrated that they are whole-brained, not heavily left-brained.
BAMcKenna has no positions in the stocks mentioned above. The Motley Fool owns shares of Apple, Google, and Microsoft. Motley Fool newsletter services recommend Apple, Google, and Yahoo!. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.If you have questions about this post or the Fool’s blog network, click here for information.