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Microsoft has a strange obsession with productivity

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'Getting things done' meets marketing madness

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Microsoft started with a mission during the ‘80s to put "a computer on every desk in every home." Having achieved that, the new Microsoft has bigger, more ambitious goals in an era where personal computing is moving to a mobile world Microsoft doesn’t dominate. Computers aren't just working tools anymore, they're components of our entire life. Apple is about creativity and simplicity; Google is about interconnectivity.

Microsoft has chosen productivity.

Productivity is at the center of everything Microsoft is now building across multiple rival platforms, a shift from the company’s focus on its own devices and services just a year ago under former CEO Steve Ballmer. Productivity is the new buzzword that Microsoft is slapping on everything from a fitness band to a tablet, as the company attempts to find its niche against huge competition from the likes of Apple, Amazon, and Google.

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Productivity, productivity, productivity

There are examples everywhere you look in the corporate catalog. "Your productivity will soar" with Microsoft’s Cortana digital assistant. Microsoft’s new fitness band will teach you to "live healthier and be more productive." Office helps "more than a billion people be more productive." Surface Pro 3 is the "most productive tablet on the planet." As evidenced by its own words, Microsoft is obsessed with productivity.

Problem is, it’s not a sexy word. It might not be the right one to sell Microsoft’s products, even if productivity is what the company does best (Office, for instance). Most people don’t wake up in the morning with an overpowering desire or need to be more productive. Productivity implies work. It’s a management philosophy, the desire to get more out of their workforce, the stuff of industrial revolutions. You don’t buy a fitness band to "be more productive" in the same way that you wouldn’t buy a more productive cereal to eat at breakfast.

Microsoft needs to understand why someone wants to use a computer, not why they need to use it.

Consumers use products because they’re simple, convenient, and sometimes because there’s an element of emotional attachment or trust to a particular brand or company. Productivity, meanwhile, is emotionless — it’s an idea that evokes feelings of being controlled by your boss or tied to an assembly line, rather than something that delights.

Satya Nadella Microsoft stock

"It’s fair to say that productivity as just a single word doesn’t have that emotional appeal."

Microsoft does at least appear to understand that its continued use of the word productivity everywhere is bizarre. "It’s fair to say that productivity as just a single word doesn’t have that emotional appeal," admitted CEO Satya Nadella at the company’s Future Decoded event in London yesterday. Nadella didn’t really answer what productivity means, but communications chief Frank Shaw has his own take on Microsoft’s new buzzword.

"Productivity is simply a way of thinking about how well we use our time," argues Shaw, as he defines Microsoft’s understanding of productivity. Microsoft says it’s now aiming to create natural and intelligent tools that don’t require people to learn how they work, and that can anticipate and prioritize the things that matter across any device. "Our customers are not constrained by an outdated definition of this thing called ‘productivity.’ And neither are we," says Shaw.

Microsoft’s focus on its core strengths of software, platforms, and getting things done is a good approach for the company, the approach to selling it all is weird: instead of telling us we can be more productive, why doesn’t Microsoft just handle it, so we can get on with our lives? "We’ll worry about your productivity, you worry about everything else." There are early signs that’s exactly what Microsoft plans to do, especially with things like Microsoft Band, Cortana, and 3D sound that put technology secondary to experience — but today, it’s still shoving the productivity label down our throats.

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Microsoft is bringing its software and services to iOS and Android in a big way

It’s not that productivity doesn’t make money, it’s just not the best way to appeal to regular human beings. The Surface Pro 3 tablet debuted earlier this year, positioned as a laptop killer and productivity tablet — the type that professionals and creatives could use to get things done — and it actually appears to be paying off, judging from Microsoft’s most recent earnings. Microsoft is even making other devices like the iPad more "productive," thanks to cross-platform software like Office and services like OneDrive. While Ballmer was preoccupied with Windows everywhere, the new Microsoft CEO, Satya Nadella, is bringing the company’s software and services to iOS and Android in a big way.

Despite all the talk of productivity, there are also signs the company wants to balance work and life instead of slowly turning into another IBM or Dell. A new bundle combines all of Microsoft’s main consumer services into a single subscription, for instance, and the company is still focused on Outlook.com, OneDrive, Xbox, and Skype.

So Microsoft is already building this work-life balance into its products, but the marketing message is confused and corporate. If there’s one big positive change that comes out of Microsoft’s obsession with productivity, it’s a single vision — mission first, platform second — that could help with the company’s culture that has focused far too much on protecting Windows over the years. Ultimately, it’s also a defensive move: Microsoft can’t face a future where businesses start to switch away from its software and services, so it needs to be everywhere. Positioning itself as the company that helps you get things done on every device you own could be the best way for Microsoft to stay relevant.

Productivity might just not be the best word for it.