When HBR Revealed Microsoft’s Secret Playbook

I'll never forget the first HBR article I ever read. The year was 1991, and I was a senior executive at Microsoft. The computer revolution was in its infancy, and the nascent tech industry was blazing new trails in both technology and business. At that point in time, HBR seemed like something relevant for big companies in big established industries, not something that would speak to our crazy young industry, where strategy was something that we made up as we were going and the leading companies were run by college dropouts like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. The computer industry was still dominated by mainframes and minicomputers, and as a result, the most powerful companies were IBM and Digital Equipment Corporation. Maybe HBR would have something relevant for them, but surely not for us.

The article that changed all that was "The Computerless Computer Company" by Andrew Rappaport and Shmuel Halevi. A friend in Silicon Valley told me that I had to read it, so I tracked down a copy of HBR at a Seattle newsstand. I was shocked to discover that Rappaport and Halevi had pretty much figured out the strategy that we were pursuing, and were now telling the world about it.

They understood that a fundamental shift had occurred — computers had to be sold on the basis of their utility, and that was as much or more of a software issue than a hardware issue. It was the design of the platform that mattered, which was mostly a software thing. Manufacturing was, at best, a means to that end. The idea that a computer company had to manufacture was at best quaint, and at worst a deeply misguided endeavor that could distract a company from what really mattered, which was creating a powerful platform that offered great utility to its users.

We had also figured this out at Microsoft, and by 1991, we were well on the way to executing a strategy to take our Windows platform on a path to span every part of computing, from servers to cell phones. It was as if HBR had our secret playbook and had laid out our future plans for the whole world to see. Indeed, the article was probably more articulate in laying out the case than we had been ourselves.

I now know that this sort of article is why HBR exists — to be the world's sounding board for the best analysis and strategic insight in business. That's why I've continued to read it ever since.

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