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Songsmith Sings Microsoft’s Hope

Incubation projects can save Microsoft. The company needs them now more than ever.

Whenever I casually talk to Microsoft employees—off the record, the stuff I don’t ever write about—a consistent theme emerges: bureaucracy. There are too many layers of management, too many MBAs and too much process. Too many projects must be justified by scads of research and focus groups. It’s too difficult to get green lights for good new ideas.

If these complaints meant something before, how much more will they now? Last week, Microsoft laid off about 1,400 people, with another 3,600 planned over the next 18 months. The specter of layoffs will hang over everybody, sap morale and make employees cautious when they should be daring. The time to invest in the future is now.

In September, I blogged about the importance of Microsoft incubation projects, coincidentally three days before Lehman Brothers’ bankruptcy—the falling stone that sent global economies crashing. I praised younger Microsoft managers and outsiders for having a transformative impact.

“The company is increasingly becoming a loose network of startups, of incubation projects,” I wrote. “From those groups’ work has come products like Live Mesh, Photosynth, Popfly and WorldWide Telescope. From any smaller company, these projects would be viewed as being hugely innovative. Instead, they lose something by coming from Microsoft and being lost in the tonnage of such a large company.” This is the time for more internal startups, for greater risk taking.

Last night, as I was reading the zillions of anonymous comments to Mini-Microsoft’s second post on layoffs, one caught my attention: “Here’s another prime example of our ‘diworsification’ strategy: Microsoft Songsmith. What the hell are we doing? What possible audience are we trying to reach? Tone-deaf idiots interested in background instrumentals? I don’t understand.”

I do understand. It’s seemingly little projects like Songsmith or WorldWide Telescope that should be Microsoft’s future. There’s a reason why platform developers look for killer applications. Right now, Windows has lots of applications that are not truly exciting enough for people to rush out and buy new Windows PCs.

The Mac is different. Apple’s brand and products are sizzling compared with Microsoft’s fizzling. There is no single causal force. Retail stores, iPhone, iPod, iTunes, and effective and aggressive marketing are among the reasons for Mac market share gains. There is another factor, often overlooked by analysts but not by customers, and that’s Apple’s killer app: iLife.

Yesterday, Apple released iLife `09, the most feature-useful upgrade since iLife `04. Apple’s digital suite is to the 2000s what the productivity suite was to the 1990s. Office helped drive Windows sales from Version 95 onward. The desktop productivity suite was one of several killer Windows apps for the document era. But that computing age has passed. People still create content, but they’re not thinking newsletters. They’re taking digital photos, making home movies and listening to—or even creating—music.

A few months ago, I blogged about how many journalism schools recommend that students use Mac laptops, mainly because of iLife. Missouri School of Journalism is one of many telling incoming students to buy a Mac and not a Windows PC. From the laptop requirements FAQ:

Q. What brand or model should I buy? A. The faculty has designated Apple Computer as its preferred provider for two primary reasons: (1) Apple’s OS X operating system is based on Unix, which makes these computers far less susceptible to viruses than other computers. Viruses are a serious problem on university campuses. (2) Apple MacBook and MacBook Pro computers come bundled with iLife, a suite of applications ideal for learning the basics of photo editing, and audio and video editing. We’ll use those programs in several classes. Incoming students will receive information on recommended models and pricing in February of each year.

Q. What if I prefer a Windows-based machine? A. That’s an option, but it’s one we do not recommend unless you plan to make a career of computer-assisted reporting. By the time you purchase photo, audio and video software for a PC, you probably will have spent more than you would if buying a comparable Apple Computer.

Who could have imagined in 2003, when Apple launched iLife, that the $79 software—free on new Macs—would be a preferred, even recommended, tool for new media journalism? Apple shows the true value of software done right; iLife is a killer application for creating digital content, like Office was for creating text content a decade ago.

Songsmith is a great example of how Microsoft can reclaim the future. The software, coming out of Microsoft Research, is free for 30 days. Then people pay $29.95. OMG! What a concept! People pay for software rather than getting it for free subsidised by advertising. Distribution is cheap because it’s digital download. More importantly, Songsmith rivals Apple’s Garage Band, but by doing something different. You sing, and the software creates a soundtrack.

From small projects like Songsmith can come killer applications that make Windows more exciting and, if done right, work together with other Microsoft platforms, such as Windows Mobile or Xbox/Xbox Live. Does Microsoft have the will to let small projects rise and even rival established products like Office and Windows? You tell me, please, in comments or by e-mail.

In the next post, I’ll explain why Windows 7 product management should be the model for Microsoft to adopt for other established products.