Follow up to Microsoft's Sacred Cow
My story about Microsoft in the Seattle Weekly received a surprising number of responses. Slashdot’s link to the article last Thursday helped generate more than 175,000 page views proving again that no news is local news. I decided to post a follow up to the article given the number of letters and comments I’ve received from people over the past week. Please feel free to post your comments below.
Thoughts about Microsoft
Some people from Microsoft complained that I didn’t talk more about the products they are working on e.g. Longhorn, Tablet PC, Xbox2, Smart Phones, etc. I did ask Microsoft PR to let me talk to people with Longhorn and the other product groups but they ultimately declined. I know that people at Microsoft are excited about Longhorn. But while they say it will ship in 2006, we can’t be certain it won’t slip until 2007. In the end, Longhorn just didn’t seem as relevant to the story as its absence. OS X will be improved in 2006 too. So will Linux.
As for other product groups, I just didn’t see meaningful revenue growth from new product areas over the next few years that might affect my main thesis (Microsoft’s addiction to the Windows/Office revenue has slowed innovation). Business Week’s recent article estimated less than one billion in incremental revenue per year from new products through 2007.
Some people lauded Microsoft for giving away its service packs. While I agree this is a pro-customer business practice, the upcoming XP service pack is broader and deeper than past service packs. From what I’ve heard, it’s a major security improvement for novice users. It’s great that Microsoft will release it for free. I just think the extra focus on XP SP2 has cost Microsoft valuable time on future releases including Longhorn. The resulting Longhorn delay is the key issue to Microsoft’s competitiveness, not the cost of the service pack.
I think Microsoft people sometimes have a better experience with their own products than consumers do. Microsoft’s own state of the art managed corporate network and desktops provide a better experience for its employees than customers out in the real world. Some employees have told me they reboot only once a month. I remember having a similar experience with Windows 95 when I worked there. But it’s not generally like that for consumers. E.g. Outlook with Exchange Server may be great, but it’s not so great with IMAP. I think there still is a disconnect between Microsoft’s own sense of the quality of their products and their actual quality.
Some people raised the point that it’s easier for Apple to build a stable operating system because it only has to work on one hardware platform (their own), whereas Microsoft has to build software for numerous third party hardware platforms. I agree this point has merit. If the story had been solely about Windows reliability issues, I would have focused more on this. Still, Apple does seem to do a better job of isolating application problems from operating system stability than I see in Windows.
I’m a customer
I think Microsoft would benefit by thinking of me as a long time customer who after evaluating what they could offer – chose a competitor and had a great experience that I wanted to share. While I don’t expect to get letters of praise from Microsofties for my article, it did surprise me to receive only one email acknowledging that the article raised issues that could help them improve their products. [Late correction: After posting this, I did find an email from the Outlook group wanting to find out more about the problems I'd been having - kudos and thanks!]
It made me think about the old United Airlines commercial where a small business owner gets fired by an old friend/loyal client and buys airline tickets to fly his employees out to get reacquainted with all of their customers. At the end of the commercial, the employees ask the boss where he’s going, “to visit that old friend,” he says.
I can understand why the article would upset people at Microsoft and why some readers might feel that I have an axe to grind. I remember what it was like to work there – it’s a heady, intense environment filled with dedicated intelligent people. I know what the kool aid tastes like. One reader said that no Windows loyalist was going to get what I was saying until they tried OS X. I think this is true. I think Microsoft employees would benefit by immersing themselves more in the open source community and exploring the kinds of projects and products that are out there.
Microsoft product groups get to download and use all Microsoft software for free. While this is great for product testing and internal feedback, it can create tunnel vision. I have to wonder if groups were charged budget line items for software whether they would make the same purchasing decisions. e.g. would managers of programmers let them all have Microsoft Office ($$$) or insist they get by with OpenOffice (free)?
The Mac & Linux Echo Chamber
My article clearly touched a nerve for Mac and Linux loyalists. But it sort of seemed like an echo chamber of our own making. I don’t think this serves us or the industry very well.
I think the challenge for open source is to move beyond imitation to setting the lead for the industry. I think building Internet services into applications is one area where the open source community can lead now…and I see some early examples of it. But a lot more needs to be done. I will probably blog more on this in the future.
I think the open source community must also deal with the challenges that corporate participation creates. Is it enough for Apple to build some OS X components in open source but not others?
One of my sources said he thought the current stagnation with Windows has allowed a period of successful imitation by open source but that over time momentum would swing back to proprietary solutions as corporations became more involved.
Microsoft’s ambiguous position with regard to Mono is a related point. Microsoft spokesperson Jim Desler told me that the Sun settlement illustrated that Microsoft was trying to listen to its customers who want more interoperability. But he declined to comment on whether Microsoft would challenge Mono with its .NET patents.
Is there room for the open source model to evolve? The source I mentioned earlier thought open source might better compete with Microsoft if there was a way to compensate developers for their contributions. Perhaps the recent requirement of code signing in Linux may lead to some sort of new hybrid development model.
My Windows and Office complaints
Many readers confused me with Paul Andrews whom I quoted regarding his use of Windows 98 on his PC (Paul also has a Mac and a Linux box). My own comparisons were based on Windows XP vs. Mac OS X.
Some people questioned the merits of my article given that I couldn’t fix some of the problems with Windows that I’d mentioned on my own. E.g. bulleting of every line in Word documents. It’s not that I can’t fix my own problems, it’s just that I finally got tired of having to. My experience with Windows got to the point where looking up another knowledge base article just wasn’t worth working around it – and eventually abandoning the platform.
Thanks to Mike Alexander from Microsoft who posted this link for fixing the problem with Word bullets (many readers misunderstood the problem which they thought was more simple). For the record, I did get Internet Explorer working again by uninstalling it, rebooting and reinstalling it. Since I’ve been on OS X, I don’t have these kinds of problems – and I’m more productive and happier.
I scanned my troublesome Windows PC at work. There is no Spyware on it, no Kazaa, etc.
Furthermore, I was surprised at the lack of imagination by Outlook users who wrote that the latest 2003 release works better with Exchange server. What about automated address book synchronization e.g. Plaxo? What about Internet calendar sharing (this is not a solution)? What about automated spam white listing e.g. SpamArrest? What about a more search-oriented user interface that eliminates folder management e.g. Gmail?
Outlook is where most users spend most of their time – I just expected Microsoft to do more with it. I thought this reader made a good point that reflects the lack of innovation in corporate-focused Office 2003:
“They’ve [Microsoft] moved power from the desktop to the corporate IT departments. This is a self-reinforcing complexity mechanism. IT departments have themselves grown rich and fat on the massive amounts of resources required to maintain Windows corporate environments. This is one reason why the Redmond cash cow continues, because Microsoft serves its primary customer—not the end user, but the CIO who buys on behalf of the end user.”
It’s not clear to me how good ideas make it out of the product groups at Microsoft. Google seems to encourage and tolerate a certain level of experimental chaos. Most Microsoft people I’ve spoken to agree that employees who may suggest a new product or a new approach are more likely to be asked to focus on their own assignments than to be invited to discuss the idea with their manager’s manager.
Headlines are important. While the Slashdot link read, “A Former Microsoftie Forecasts Microsoft Doom”, I think the article made it clear that Microsoft’s cash reserves would help sustain it for many years. Though I think one reader said it well:
“In his lust to dominate the browser market and bring down Netscape, Bill and his cronies decided to give Internet Explorer away for free. They succeeded in undermining Netscape and getting the lion’s share of the browser market, but in the process they got an entire generation of users hooked on getting stuff for free. Once users get a taste of free, getting them to pay for stuff becomes difficult or impossible. Why pay for a browser when I can get it for free? Why pay for an operating system when I can get it for free? Why pay for software when I can get it for free? Why pay for music when I can get it for free? Why pay for movies when I can get them for free? In the end, it isn’t just Microsoft that’s hurt by this.”
For the record, I am very grateful for my time at Microsoft and the people that I worked with. I continue to use some Microsoft products. With my Mac G5, I use a Microsoft Wireless Natural Keyboard and Trackball Explorer mouse (both great products). I am, for the moment, trying out Mac Office 2004. At Groundspring, I'm currently using Visio on Windows. And, I am very aware of how fortunate I was to be there as the company grew and to share in its financial success. Without this, I would not have been able to start ActionStudio – and would not have my job with Groundspring.
That said, Microsoft needs to focus more on building better products for consumers. As one reader wrote:
“Unconditional loyalty is more appropriately exercised with friends and families rather than with corporations. Not only would the world be a better place, but we’d be getting better products.”
I know how hard building software and services is. We’ve had a lot of challenges with our own Groundspring products. Yet, Microsoft has vast resources and should be doing better than they are.
Thanks again to everyone for sharing your comments. And, thanks to the Microsoft folks who posted ideas to help me solve the problems I’d been having.