back to article Microsoft spunks $500m to reinvent the wheel. Why?

As strange shopping expeditions go, this has to rank alongside London Bridge being bought, dismantled, and then rebuilt in Arizona. The world’s biggest software company, Microsoft, has now spent half a billion dollars on mobile apps that are poor cousins of its own Exchange and Outlook software. Apps that, in some cases, don’t …

  1. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Odd...

    ....wan't the same said about Skype?

    http://forums.theregister.co.uk/forum/1/2011/05/10/microsoft_buys_skype/

    1. asdf

      Re: Odd...

      Care to point out exactly how that deal was lucrative for Microsoft without lots of assumptions for the future? 8.5 billion in 2011 money means it wasn't a rounding error deal even for Microsoft.

    2. Paul Shirley

      Re: Odd...

      Skype under MS failed to fail because they kept it free of established MS management and engineering culture. The relative success of XBox was similar, fenced off from the parent company right up till the XB1 fiasco, the moment MS management thinking arrived it all started going sour.

      Why does MS need to buy in product? It's the quickest way to change corporate culture and lost it's toxic effect on the products. The alternative is an unpredictable number of years waiting for organic change to actually take hold, longer than they can afford to wait.

    3. Kurt 4

      Re: Odd...

      They can easily build this stuff. That's not the point. These apps are already hugely popular with lots of users. They are buying the user base more than anything.

      1. asdf

        Re: Odd...

        And how is the Skype user base that much different than the Windows and Office user base?

  2. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Now MS has bought them

    no one else can.

    1. asdf

      Re: Now MS has bought them

      Is that the argument HP used for way overpaying for Autonomy? Buying high to show the other guy is generally not a winning strategy especially if there nothing that unique involved.

    2. BillG
      Holmes

      Re: Now MS has bought them

      These apps and/or companies have something else that Microsoft wants: patents, market or marketing intelligence, a database of users, specific members of management, a specific software team, or something similar.

      It's the less obvious acquisitions that often have the more compelling business plans.

  3. Tony Haines

    Maybe the source code has become such a creeping horror of badly implemented features, bugs and their workarounds that no-one can change it anymore, so trying again with a better foundation is the plan?

    1. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

      I'd be very surprised if the code base for any of these apps is particularly good. The economics of small commercial software developers discourages most good practices for writing code - things like sensible design, robust error checking, security analysis, and peer review are early casualties of an understaffed team. And the economics of the smartphone app market are more so; that's a very crowded market differentiated mainly by low cost, features visible to users, and recommendations from non-experts.

      Much of Microsoft's existing code base is hampered by the requirements of backward compatibility, years of poor practice prior to the introduction of better processes (like the SDL), unnecessary features and counterproductive management-driven change, and sheer size. But it's getter better, and much as I hate Outlook as a user, I have more confidence in it than in some random app thrown together by a couple of dudes in a basement. The latter might be well-crafted, but I'm not putting my money on it.

      (Just to be clear, I don't use Outlook on my phone. I use the stock Android calendar app, which is crap; the stock Android email and Gmail apps, which are barely adequate; and for notes I use Inkpad, which is usually OK though I've run into glitches once or twice. Only access to corporate email from Android is via Outlook Web Access, which is pretty terrible, so I rarely use it.)

  4. Mage Silver badge
    Trollface

    Exchange and Outlook

    But lots of people hate those.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Facepalm

      Re: Exchange and Outlook

      After suffering the slings and arrows of the alternatives, well ... we return to the ones we know. Outlook and Exchange. Sad.

  5. Mage Silver badge
    Facepalm

    Phones

    They bought a phone company Sidekick/Danger, ran it into ground, so then paid amazing money to another phone division that have been given last rites to have little more than a licence for IP and liability of closing factories and paying off unwanted phone division staff. Nokia laughing all the way to the bank!

    It's about 2003 since MS made logical decisions.

    But MS SQL, Power Point, Visio, Mappoint, MS Money, MS Services for Unix, Skype were all acquisitions?

    Was Zune UI bought in or in house? I don't know (Source of Metro really).

  6. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Stealing from Douglas Adams...

    There is a theory, that if anybody ever figures out what Microsoft's strategy is, it will instantly be replaced by something even more baffling.

    There is another theory: that this has already happened

  7. asdf

    easy

    >The most obvious question is: how can a software giant with over 100,000 staff and forty years of experience not find around a hundred people (at most) with the skills and experience to write some PIM software by itself?

    I guess the Ballmer carefully cultivated bureaucracy has finally seized up. Sad that even an internal skunkworks doesn't seem like a possibility. Guess those department fiefdoms are defended just like in 12th century Europe so buying someone else to do it and paying a premium is the C Suites only sure thing choice.

  8. asdf
    Trollface

    missed one

    >No-one can accuse a portfolio that spans Sharepoint apps, Yammer, Skype, One Note and Nadella’s big idea, Delve of being coherent

    Forgot Minecraft lol.

  9. Surur

    They are obviously buying the users who refuse to use Microsoft's products. Like those millions of minecraft players. Its a land grab. Its like asking why Comcast wanted to buy TWC.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Trollface

      Now that I would believe! What next? Buy Apple for the users that got away? Oh. Forgot the valuations.

  10. LDS Silver badge

    It happens when managment can't forecast and plan properly anymore

    They suddenly think they need something ASAP, and the answer is always the same "we have no time to build, let's buy something!!!!". And usually they find later they bought something that really don't fit the needs as it looked it could.

  11. ST Silver badge
    WTF?

    Microsoft needs an Organizing Tool ...

    to organize its Organizing Tools.

    This is so totally Meta, SoLoMo (or is it MoSoLo) and recursive, it's awesome.

  12. Philip Storry

    Outlook's no gem

    "Neither Wunderlist nor Sunrise support a fraction of the sophisticated feature set that Exchange and Outlook use. Outlook allows you to apply categories to both email items and tasks, assign single-click shortcuts, and create rules – the building blocks for complex workflows."

    And there lies the rub. You talk about Outlook as if it's a highly polished bit of software, but only the email part is. And even that has its dull corners.

    Yes, you can categorise email items and tasks. Categorisation is semi-useless though.

    It's mostly a manual process. Oh, you can create a rule to apply categories automatically - but that rule won't run on the server. So if you log off overnight or your PC suspends to save power, then your rules won't run. And if you move an email from the Inbox into a folder via your mobile access or webmail in between your Outlook sessions, then the categorisation never happens (because the rule never sees the email).

    So in practice, you'll end up not using categories and just filing emails in unique folders instead. And don't start me on searching - yes, it can be done, but you have to prepend the name with "category:", so very few people bother. (As opposed to just using a #tag style tagging system as most modern web apps do - the hashtag succeeded because it's more intuitive for both input and search.)

    Categorisation should be a wonderful thing. But in practice, like many non-email parts of Outlook it just doesn't feel finished. I get the feeling that any feature which isn't either Exchange integration or core email just doesn't get much development time...

    Tasks? Yes, I can flag an email and it appears in my tasks. But it only appears in All Tasks list, so the integration is quite limited. So why bother? And yes, tasks also appear in your calendar. But only on the due date, which is sometimes too late as the task may require more time than you have that day. You might as well have a decent implementation separately rather than the anaemic and half-finished Outlook implementation.

    I've used Wunderlist (but don't anymore, and not due to the Microsoft purchase - I have something that meets my needs better.)

    If I were given the option of departmental Wunderlist or just using Outlook's tasks, I'd go for the Wunderlist option. It may not be integrated, but it has the essentials for task management - views for starred to-dos, today's due (and overdue) to-dos, this week's tasks, and so forth. Its list management is decent, it does tagging, and its sharing features are good.

    Not that Wunderlist is perfect - but it's certainly better than Outlook's aneamic efforts.

    I sorely doubt that the Wunderlist developers will ever be let near the Outlook client - it's too risky. I do wonder if some new collection of web-and-app services might not be on the horizon though, ready to take over from Outlook in the long term... It certainly seems that having teams dedicated to each functional area has produced better results than one team trying to prioritise three areas. So long as they interoperate and have a common look and feel, who cares if it's actually one product or three at the server side?

  13. Deltics

    Of those mentioned, Acompli was an inspired decision...

    I was initially skeptical when someone suggested I install "Outlook" on my Android device.

    Then I was pleasantly surprised.

    Then I was delighted.

    Even my wife declared that she was "in love" with the iOS version and ditched Google InBox.

    1. asdf

      Re: Of those mentioned, Acompli was an inspired decision...

      Until you realize you just sent your work user name, domain and password up into Microsoft's cloud for storage. Its ok for some I suppose but not for me. Its a shame too because the app isn't bad to use at all.

  14. Zane

    There are no...

    ...talented developers at Microsoft. Never have been. No, they cannot find 100 good developers among their own staff.

    /Zane

    1. TheOtherHobbes

      Re: There are no...

      I'm sure MS has some talented developers. What it doesn't have is competent management.

      I think that's close to the real explanation - the acquisitions were made by clueless people who have no idea what they're doing, or why.

      Product X looks sort-of-competitive to something MS already makes, so MS buys it.

      Why? Not because it's great. Not because it has a future. Not because it has incredible market presence or the most amazing management team this side of a combined Tesla-Edison-Brunel startup.

      But because on Planet MS, it's better than what's happening in-house, and Corp Dev need to justify their existence.

      So.

      MS has become the IT equivalent of that joke about Stephen Fry - a stupid person's idea of a clever software company.

  15. Erik4872

    Could be a couple things...

    I can think of a few reasons:

    - Heading off the need to pay startup founders off later in the form of patent licensing. If you acquire the company before they amass enough IP, you don't have to pay for it later.

    - Microsoft is still scared to death of mobile/tablets and wants to become an Apple-style middleman. For this, they need a platform people will gravitate towards. So, they'll buy anything and everything in hopes that something users love comes of it.

    I'm seeing a lot of the second one in Windows 10. Microsoft is hell-bent on making a go of Windows Phone, and also hell-bent on convincing PC users that they'd rather be using tablets with Store-curated apps. Despite the massive pushback by customers with Windows 8, they're not giving up. Metro lives on, and they've put back only enough PC functionality to keep people from screaming.

    1. a_yank_lurker Silver badge

      Re: Could be a couple things...

      MS is acting like they are lost and do not know which way to go. They are afraid if they do not make a major play with phones and tablets they are toast. But trying to make a major play make them toast because they lost focus on their primary markets.

    2. Charlie Clark Silver badge

      Re: Could be a couple things...

      Microsoft is hell-bent on making a go of Windows Phone, and also hell-bent on convincing PC users that they'd rather be using tablets with Store-curated apps

      Really? The recent announcements about Office and Cortana for Android suggest that Nadella is winning the internal services over platform argument. There's a lot of money to be made from the Exchange solution on Android and IOS which is why Microsoft is going after it.

    3. Robert Carnegie Silver badge

      Seconded on patents.

      I think they're buying patents that will allow them to close down anyone else making useful mobile devices and software. Including patents that shouldn't even be patents.

  16. Captain DaFt

    I object in the strongest possible terms!

    "Microsoft re-inventing the wheel, but making it square"

    Balderdash! These days Microsoft is way too agile and innovative to do such tom foolery!

    They made it triangular, with one less bump! So There!

    1. hplasm
      Devil

      Re: I object in the strongest possible terms!

      "They made it triangular, with one less bump! So There!"

      But with the move back towards 2D, would the MS Wheel not just be a line?

      That would explain the bumpy ride...

  17. danbi

    The great Microsoft technology

    I begin to think that the great Microsoft technology referred to in the article is just marketing and wishful thinking. Just like MS-DOS was when they negotiated wit IBM.

    But, it worked back then, because Bill was the son of Mary.

  18. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Accounting Reasons

    Put very simply, if you have $100m in cash sitting in your bank account and you buy a company for $100m, you've now got a $100m asset sitting on your books (possibly with prior tax losses that you can use to lessen your own profits in subsequent years). Alternatively if you spend a year or two building out a new software application spending say $40m, you've just wiped $40m off your balance sheet, spent two years seeing your competitors grow, have no real idea whether or not what you'll have at the end of the two years is relevant, good, worth anything, etc.

  19. Schlimnitz

    That characteristic Nadella 'explaining' hand position

    "I will throttle you 'til you understand"

  20. nijam Silver badge

    > ... mobile apps that are poor cousins of its own Exchange and Outlook software.

    How could *anything* at all be considered a "poor cousin" of those abominations?

    > Apps that, in some cases, don’t natively work with Microsoft’s server software.

    No, it's Microsoft's server software that doesn't work natively with them.

  21. SecretSonOfHG

    There are very talented developers in MS

    The problem is, they're surrounded by an environment that is toxic to innovation. MS is not driven by developers (or engineers, take your pick) but by businessmen.

    Engineers/developers may lead a company to bankrupt by focusing only on the cool shiny things but the company still has a chance of creating new products or radically improving existing ones. But when a company is taken over by MBAs its focus switches from "creating amazing things" to subjects such as "financial performance", "end user experience" and above all "strategy", meetings start to become PowerPoint showcases and Excel is the tool of choice for making decisions. Financials and short term results rule everything else. These people really believe that they can manage anything, from a cereal manufacturer to a software house without knowing or caring about what the company actually does, and they attempt to do it, with the usual consequences.

    There are a few good engineers that have also MBAs, so don't take it personally.

  22. beavershoes

    Great Catch !!!

    There is logic behind Microsoft's decision here. Maybe though, the logic is so macabre that only Microsoft can understand it's value. Bill Gates does have many qualities of the devil, you know.

  23. James 100

    Factions

    In an outfit the size of MS - or even one much smaller - not everyone will be on the same page. You'll get different teams re-solving the same problem in different ways; sometimes one is better and replaces the other, sometimes you're just left with duplication. Raymond Chen recently blogged about a situation where two rival teams actually wrote rival clients for the same internal protocol, too.

    The Windows Installer stuff - MSI - started out within Office 2000, as the Office installer, before being moved and extended. They had other installers before that.

    Maybe the management don't like Exchange as a backend mechanism for these new services, for example? Even a "poor cousin" offering right now might still have a better infrastructure MS want to get their hands on, or just a better/different skillset to the existing ones. I never really saw the point of Yammer, but MS seem to like it...

    I just hope MS aren't adopting Google's usual habit, of buying up a small company that makes a nice product - then killing the product and mulching the team into their collective, never to be seen again. OK, Google needs staff, but stop killing off products in the process!

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