Can Microsoft Learn To Sell Things to People?

Apple and Google and Amazon, the three big-of-the-moment tech companies, all have meaningful enterprise sales but are primarily companies that in their DNA market products directly to individuals. Microsoft, the no-longer-hip titan of the 1990s whose software still powers the vast majority of business and government offices around the world, has a very different heritage. But it’s clear that Microsoft wants, strategically, to increase its consumer presence. Can they make it work?

Headlines like this from Paul Thurrott help underscore the challenge:*

Windows 8 Tip: Understand The Differences Between The SkyDrive App And The SkyDrive Application

See it turns out there are two new operating systems coming out. One is Windows RT, a mobile device OS. The other is Windows 8, which has a mobile-optimized Metro mode and also a more conventional desktop mode. Thurrott is using the word “application” to mean desktop applications and “app” to mean mobile apps for Windows RT. So SkyDrive has both an app—a Windows port of a SkyDrive app for Android or iOS that runs on Windows RT—and also a desktop application for Windows 8. But Windows 8 also runs the app alongside the application. See?

It’s not brain surgery, but it’s not exactly designed with a high priority placed on “let’s make sure dad’s not confused when he goes to the store.”

Which isn’t to say it’s bad. The Windows RT/Windows 8 thing is slightly confusing, but it also builds on Windows’ core strengths of “make sure a large purchaser can get exactly the equipment he wants” and “do as much back compatibility as conceivably possible without ditching the concept of forward technological progress.” Historically, this has very much been the right set of priorities for a company that wants to sell computers as opposed to MP3 players or phones.

*Correction, Oct. 22, 2012: This post originally misspelled Paul Thurrott’s last name.