There seems to be a lot of chatter around Microsoft's purchase of Yammer. There is clearly much to talk about here especially what it means for the addictive business narcotic known as SharePoint. This topic is not that interesting to me as I find this acquisition to be one more step towards the inevitable demise of licensed application software for businesses.
Jobs Was Not Known For Being Nice
There are a couple of more subtle points to consider when one tries to discern what this acquisition says about Microsoft's core ability to develop new products and services that consumers and businesses will pay for. In the closing pages of Jobs' biography Jobs referred to Microsoft as "mostly irrelevant" and I would argue that this acquisition furthers that argument.
To fully understand what Jobs meant by this comment, one can look at Tim Cook's comment last month regarding how Facebook was the company most like Apple. On one side, you have companies like Apple and Facebook. These companies think in terms of conceptual wholes.
When Facebook first came out, it was (and still remains) fairly hard to describe. Facebook basically invented a product category and constantly grounds its decisions in the product ecosystem first. Questions related to revenue are secondary to this. Questions related to details are secondary. The qualitative experience reigns supreme over all. Revenue at Facebook is almost treated as a byproduct of making something awesome and compelling.
Well Done Is Better Than Well Said
This overriding philosophy has other symptoms as well. When Facebook acquires a company, the coverage is significantly different. There isn't a horde of commentators talking in depth about what the acquisition means for the offerings. Whether it is photo sharing with Instagram, checkins and social discovery with Gowalla and Glancee, or most recently facial recognition with Face.com, how the acquisitions fit into the overall vision and product set is clear to most everyone.
There is an interesting paradox here in that while Facebook's offering my be hard to describe without using self referential terminology, it is actually well-understood. Microsoft and SharePoint on the other hand are fairly easy to describe but defy significant understanding at the macro level. Microsoft is hard to grok.
Both Microsoft and SharePoint are an agglomeration of parts, and Yammer is yet another discrete part that will be jammed in that overstuffed 20 pound bag along with the the 25 pounds of stuff already there. This is what Jobs meant.
"Taco Garden" Or "The Olive Bell"?
Microsoft doesn't really seem to be interested in creating categories. Microsoft is more interested in accumulation and atomistic addition. Clearly both Facebook and Apple acquire companies and add their products and services into their mix.
The difference is that these acquisitions seem to go together naturally like adding peanut-butter to chocolate where Microsoft's acquisitions seem more like adding pizza to tacos. Don't get me wrong. I like pizza and I like tacos. It's just that seeing them on the same dinner table is a little confusing and leaves someone kind of wondering exactly how they will go together.
I will admit that Microsoft has done some original things in recent times like the Kinect and the new Windows Metro phone interface. I still challenge anyone to claim that this is representative of who Microsoft is. Microsoft is primarily a business first and foremost. They just happen to express it in software products, game platforms and services. Apple and Facebook are more like creators who just happen to run a business.
Defense Wins, But It Isn't Pretty
None of this means that Yammer was a bad acquisition. This sort of acquisition is shrewd, fairly obvious and in the grand scheme, inevitable for Microsoft if it wants to compete for market share as CTOs and CIOs alike strive to get the SharePoint monkey off their back with cloud-based substitutes like Jive, Chatter, a future Google offering and ever ominous corporate Facebook. This acquisition is primarily a defensive play and may someday provide a reasonably good path for SharePoint and other Microsoft products to integrate into some form of cloud-based future.
The really fun question for me is to see if Microsoft can make its Surface tablet a success. It clearly is an imitator and it remains to be seen if it can go toe-to-toe with Apple's iPad. The keyboard as a cover trick and the kickstand are slick and clever both from a design and marketing perspective but I am not sold that these gadgety add-ons would cause me to switch. I own both a kindle fire and an iPad. I have no intention of buying a Google branded tablet, but I admit, I would like to play with the Metro interface even though it has broken a cardinal rule of usability by adding multiple modes of operation. This does however highlight a good thing Microsoft has done: they have made people want to play with them again.