Give Microsoft credit; it never does anything small. Its successes rock the world. And when it screws up, it screws up big time.
1. Hasta la vista, Vista
Windows 3.x introduced the "Blue Screen of Death" to an ungrateful nation. Windows ME was such a dog it came with its own fleas. We won't even discuss Microsoft Bob. But for our money, the worst Windows version of all time is Vista. Years overdue, stripped of virtually all the groundbreaking features it was supposed to have, Vista was a wet hot mess that was only made worse by the over-the-top hype accompanying its release. Compatibility snafus, performance problems and impossibly annoying User Account Controls doomed it from the start.
2. Mobility futility
The tech world is littered with the corpses of handheld devices that tried and failed to run scaled down versions of Windows. In 2004, nearly one of four smartphones ran a Microsoft OS. Today, less than 2 percent of smartphones sold this year run Windows Mobile or Windows Phone. Yet all is not entirely lost. Windows Phone 7 has won respect, if not market share, and Microsoft's deal to put it on Nokia smartphones will expand its footprint internationally, where the Finnish handset maker still dominates (for now).
3. Zip it, Clippy
No company has mastered the art of befuddling its users while treating them like idiots quite the way Microsoft has. From the "Are you sure (Y/N)?" confirmation messages in early versions of MS-DOS to the User Account Controls in Vista, Microsoft products managed to be both confusing and condescending at the same time. But nothing embodied this attitude more than Clippy, the anthropomorphic paper clip "Office Assistant" that debuted with Office 1997. Clippy quickly became a target for parody, even Microsoft made fun of it, as well as a symbol of everything that was wrong with the company's approach to software.
4. Whom do you anti-trust?
For 21 years Microsoft battled the government over antitrust allegations. Whether accused of predatory marketing or using its desktop monopoly to "crush" competitors, Microsoft found itself in the crosshairs of both the US Department of Justice and the European Union. As an effort to release Microsoft's stranglehold on the PC market, the suits failed miserably. But Microsoft's reputation was permanently damaged.
5. A succession of failures, a failure of succession
Unlike Apple, which boasts a phalanx of top level executives trained to Think Different (as long as it wasn't differently to Steve), Microsoft has no strength to call on when Steve Ballmer finally hangs up his sweaty blue button-down. Gates is long gone, and his handpicked successor Ray Ozzie high-tailed it a year ago (presumably due to conflicts with Ballmer, though he's not talking). Over the past year, top lieutenants Robbie Bach, Steven Elop, J Allard and many others departed for greener pastures, a safe distance from their furniture-hurling CEO.
6. Gonna party like it's Windows 95
Remember when Microsoft owned the world? For a few brief shining moments in the middle of the Clinton era, it sure felt that way. With the help of a $300 million marketing campaign, as well as Jay Leno and the Rolling Stones, Microsoft turned the launch of a new computer operating system into a cultural event, years before the late Steve Jobs turned geekiness into an art form. The Windows 95 debut was not only Microsoft's greatest moment, it was also the first time a tech-oriented story dominated mainstream news. It wouldn't be the last.
7. Xbox marks the spot
Besides the Microsoft Mouse, the XBox is the only hardware product to come out of Redmond and not suffer a swift demise. It's also the only Microsoft brand to ever to find a home in people's living rooms. Despite the Red Ring of Death fiasco, which cost Microsoft more than $1 billion to repair, the XBox 360 continues to be the platform game developers most want to be on. Meanwhile, XBox Live now boasts some 35 million members, making it Microsoft's most successful exercise in social media.
8. See you at the (Microsoft) Office
It saw, it came, it conquered. Microsoft's suite of Office products dominates desktop productivity software the same way Windows dominates desktop operating systems. Of course, it didn't hurt that Microsoft may have deliberately crippled Windows 95 versions of competing suites, as Novell is now claiming. Or that Microsoft may have engaged in a bit of old-fashioned arm twisting to persuade hardware OEMs to bundle its suite with PCs, back in the day when that mattered. Still, Office wins on merit as much as on marketing muscle.
9. Windows 7 heaven
By itself, Win 7 is a steady if unspectacular operating system. But because it followed the disaster that was Windows Vista, it seems almost miraculous by comparison. Windows 7 rescued Microsoft's reputation simply by not sucking, and the low key way it was rolled out seemed to indicate a Microsoft that was humbled by the lessons of Vista. Now, people are actually excited by the prospect of the touch-friendly Windows 8. No one would have predicted that three years ago.
10. Too big to fail
For all its many faults, Microsoft is still a money machine, generating nearly $6 billion in profits over just the last three months. And as Steve Ballmer recently noted at the Web 2.0 confab, some 350 million Windows machines will be sold this year. Its ability to screw up massively and yet continue to survive is almost infinite. Which is why Microsoft will still be a factor to be reckoned with in mobile phones, tablets, gaming consoles, the cloud or any other area where Redmond focuses its gaze. It is simply too big to fail.