Why we love to hate Microsoft

Mary Branscombe has an excellent ZDNet post on Why do we (love to) hate Microsoft, and asks:

What would Microsoft need to do and say to you for you to be happy to call yourself a fan?

In part she’s reacting to Frank Shaw’s Microsoft by the Numbers in which he highlights the success of Windows 7, and makes the point that Windows netbooks will likely outsell Apple iPads by 7 or 8 times in 2010, that Linux has not ousted Windows either on the desktop or the server, and that Nokia smartphones will likely outsell iPhones by 2.5 times in 2010.

That last one is interesting. Why is Shaw puffing Nokia, when he is VP corporate communications for Microsoft? Well, the enemy of my enemy applies; it’s a jibe at Apple.

Unfortunately for Shaw, Nokia itself admits that Apple iPhone and Google Android are hurting its market share, or at least that is how I interpret this remark:

Nokia now expects its mobile device value market share to be slightly lower in 2010, compared to 2009. This update is primarily due to the competitive situation at the high-end of the market and shifts in product mix.

Nokia is being driven down-market. The same thing has happened to Microsoft in the laptop market, with the high-end going to Apple. This is a worry for both companies, since if a company becomes known as “the best” in a particular sector, it may well extend its market share simply by lowering prices or introducing cheaper product variants. This happened to some extent in the portable music player market – only to some extent, because Apple is still more expensive than most of its competitors, but its market share is now huge.

I digress. Here are a few observations on the ZDNet post. First, has Microsoft really changed as stated?

Microsoft is still paying for the bad old days of arrogance and dubious business practices. I think they’re the bad old days – I spend a lot of time talking to Microsoft insiders, partners and competitors and the attitudes I see have changed, inside and out.

The trouble is, Microsoft is so large and complex that it is hard to generalise. I think of it more as a set of united (or disunited) states than as a single corporate entity. This has always been the case – at least, as long as I can remember, and I don’t go back to the very early days.

I can believe that regulation has mitigated the worst practices of the past. But why on earth is Microsoft suing Salesforce.com (and getting itself counter-sued)? It’s terrible PR; it looks as if Microsoft wants to compete in the courts and not on product quality. If it wins and hurts Salesforce.com, what is the benefit to the industry? I realise Microsoft is not a charity, but we are talking business ethics here.

More broadly, there are two separate topics that need to be addressed. One is about the quality and prospects for Microsoft’s products and services, and the other is about how it is perceived and why.

I’ll take these in reverse order. Microsoft has history, as Mary Branscombe says, and more history than just Clippy. It’s the perceptions of the web community that are most visible to many of us, and the piece of history that counts for most is over the web browser. Microsoft beat off the competition, then froze development, an evil act that is particularly hard to forgive because of its cost in terms of devising workarounds for web pages. Yes, that’s changed now, and we have had IE7, IE8, and the promising IE9; but has Microsoft convinced the community that it would not do the same again if it had the opportunity?

There are other things I can think of. The whole Office Open XML (OOXML) saga, and hints that Microsoft is not following through on its promises. The BlueJ incident.

There is also the question of pricing, especially for business users. When I reviewed a Toshiba Netbook recently I figured that installing Windows Pro (to join a domain) and Office would cost more than the hardware. I suppose you cannot blame a company for charging what the market will bear; but when the commodity software costs more than the commodity hardware, you have to wonder whether monopolistic pricing is still present.

OK, what about product quality? I tend to agree that Microsoft often does better than it is given credit for. Windows 7 is good; Visual Studio 2010 is great; Silverlight 4 was a bit rushed but still impressive, to mention three offerings about which I know a good deal.

Nevertheless, Microsoft still had deep-rooted problems that I’ve not yet seen addressed. I’ll mention a couple.

First Microsoft still has an OEM problem. Going back to that Toshiba Netbook: it was nearly wrecked by poor OEM software additions and the user experience of a new Windows machine often remains poor. Many users do minimal customisation and as a result get a worse experience of Windows than they should. Apple will carry on winning if this is not addressed.

Second, Microsoft is conflicted, caught between the need to preserve its profits from Windows and Office, and the need to keep up with the new Cloud + Device model of computing. It is drifting towards the cloud; and developments like Office Web Apps and other one about which I am not allowed to tell you yet are encouraging (wait until next month). This issue will not go away though.

Third, mainly as a result of the above, Microsoft still does not convince when it comes to cross-platform. Silverlight is cross-platform, sure; except on the Mac you don’t have the COM integration or any equivalent, sorry, and on Linux, well there’s Moonlight or maybe we’ll work something out with Intel. It is the Windows company. Having said that, I put the Live Messenger app on the iPhone 4 I’ve been trying and it’s great; so yes, it sometimes gets it.

What can Microsoft do in order to be better liked? The key to it is this: ensure that our interactions with the company and its products are more often pleasurable than painful. Windows Phone 7 will be an interesting launch to watch, a product where Microsoft has made its best effort to break with past and deliver something users will love. We’ll see.

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10 comments to Why we love to hate Microsoft

  • Mary Branscombe

    I agree completely about the OEM cr$pware thing; Microsoft is in a real bind there because the worst of it kills performance and battery life and gives a terrible impression of Windows – but imagine the outcry if Microsoft started interfering in OEM business and taking away the profit margin the software gives them? I understand the money from that software is a significant revenue source and OEMs who will discuss it say they’d never give it up. Customer experience schmexperience… The only smart move Microsoft has made is the Signature versions of PCs; to sell in the Microsoft store PCs have to be set up properly and any cr$pware has to be segregated – if it’s on the machine it’s not installed, alternative shells like the IdeaPad interface are there to load but not on by default. Only four stores so it reaches a tiny tiny number of people, but maybe more important for thought leadership. Or maybe we’re stuck in the situation where OEMs and Inteel lead Microsoft around by the nose and they’re damned if they do (controlling the OEMs! competing with their own customers!) and damned if they don’t (ruining customer experience). Zappos nearly went bankrupt five times by my account trying to make profits out of good customer experience, so it’s not automatically the route to success ;-)

    I think the Nokia reference is strategic. If they wanted a big number that wasn’t iPhone, they could have quoted RIM, but that really is competition. I’m hearing subtle things from both Microsoft and Nokia that make me think there’s more than just mobile Silverlight in their common future – but sure, that could be Microsoft hitching its wagon to the horse that bolted up the Donner Pass…

    I could bring a metric shedload of commenters to your blog by saying that I don’t think Microsoft has backed down on OOXL. That standards process was like an agitprop class war, raising temperatures way beyond what was involved and it’s one of the great examples of this default assumption that Microsoft is Just Evil. Microsoft didn’t implement the Strict standard for writing because it wasn’t agreed anywhere near in time to hit that product; they didn’t include a specific bug fix that I know of because it wasn’t repro’ed and documented until RC but I don’t think that’s malicious – it’s just that coding takes time. Is it ideal to only have Strict read? No. Does it make Microsoft malicious? And there’s the attitude thing again… One analyst I know calls Microsoft’s past bad behaviour Bill’s billion dollar mistake; it has to have cost them way more than that.

  • Neil Hewitt

    Microsoft polarises so much because most people can’t get away from it. Most office-based workers spend an awful lot of time in front of computers running MS software. The interesting point is that your work desktop experience has far more to do with your company’s IT department than it does with Microsoft; and when things go wrong, as they often do, it’s far more likely to be a local implementation fault than an OS bug.

    Meanwhile, as you correctly point out, Tim, the home computing experience is all but ruined by crappy OEM builds. I have both the knowledge and the time to flatten and reinstall all the computers I buy, but the average guy doesn’t and doesn’t want to. Yet if OEM can’t subsidise themselves with adware contracts, MS will have to drop the per-box price of Windows or else PC prices will have to rise. This is not something that will go away overnight.

    I think some people are going to hate Microsoft whatever they do. These are the cultural haters, those who’ve plumped for another camp (Apple, Linux, whatever) and see it as a tribal thing to bash All That Is Not Us. I recall that back in the day, those of us who had chosen OS/2 as our desktop OS of choice felt it incumbent on us to bash Microsoft and Windows in whatever forum was available. Indeed, it seemed to be a necessary part of being in ‘Team OS/2′ (yes, this really did exist) which, of course, we all wanted to be a part of. I look back on those days and I feel rather ashamed of myself.

    For me, Microsoft needs to get back to evolving its technology. Win7 is good but it’s still ultimately a big ball of mud built on the now-crumbling foundations of NT and Win9x. Time to relegate Win32/64 to a VM and move to a properly managed code model. I’d like to see Midori become something other than a research project. They must also sort out the appalling mess that is their mobile OS strategy. Right now, to me, it seems like Microsoft is unable to deliver anything even vaguely technically innovative in an acceptable timeframe. Where is all their developer resource going? How can they be this inefficient? It’s baffling.

    I think Steve Ballmer needs to go, at least as CEO. He’s a good marketing man but he’s no Bill Gates, and that’s what Microsoft needs; genuine technical direction and innovation. Maybe they can tempt Bill back to stage a Jobs-like revival? We live in hope…

  • Tim (& Mary), great post. I think that an industry that spawns behemoths also spawns polarized viewpoints. Back at the start of the 80′s, IBM was a $50bn revenue company more than the next 5 combined (Burroughs, Univac, NCR, Control Data and Honeywell). At that time it was a monopolistic industry – if you wanted peripherals, if you wanted software etc you had to go to the manufacturer. It was a closed shop. Microsoft did it’s fair share along with the Unix/Open Systems companies to tear down these walls. Encouraging a thriving VAR, ISV community, Microsoft helped transfer some of the power from IBM and helped establish a new behemoth, themselves. For that, I think they should be praised. Now they themselves are under considerable pressure from Google, from Apple, from the new kids on the Social Media block. Plus ca change, plus cela meme chose.

  • Blad_Rnr

    You haven’t even mentioned viruses, spam email ((http://rixstep.com/1/1/20071014,00.shtml) where MSFT servers and PCs account for something like 97% of all spam email traffic because of hidden botnets running on them), trojans and spyware. MSFT has done very little to address this. PC users act like it’s business as usual, like there is no remedy, that’s the way life is. MSFT has a duty to clean up its OS and make it safer, more reliable against viruses and botnets/spam traffic, and bring real innovation to the desktop.

    Other than that, what have they done for us lately? MSFT has no real innovation upstream. They will be three+ years late to competing against the iPhone. They have went through billions of dollars on failed projects, dumped “Courier” probably because they couldn’t bring it to market, and can’t produce a truly stunning lightweight OS for netbooks/tablets. They are too big to succeed in these markets, relying on dying cash cows like Office and Windows. Touch computing is the future and they don’t have a clue. They will hold to the mouse/keyboard for another ten years while slowing losing profits, and this time around they won’t have the Mac OS to steal concepts/ideas from.

    MSFT has lost it for me. They still act like it’s 1995.

  • tim

    @Blad_Rnr Thanks for the comment. While I agree that malware is a big problem I don’t agree that Microsoft has done “very little”; there has been a big security push at the company (including the controversial User Account Control) and we now have the free Microsoft Security Essentials which is a step forward. Another issue is to what extent Microsoft has it in its power to fix security. Maybe there is more that could and should have been done; but it has undoubtedly made an effort.

    Tim

  • Don

    I’ll become a fan of MS when they:
    End monopolistic practices.
    Innovate instead of copy.
    Stop using FUD to prevent competition.
    Stop promising features they know they can’t deliver.
    Start making things I want to use instead of have to use.
    Start being more transparent in their finances so we can see how much they make and lose in each part of each division.
    Cease the monopolistic practice of using one division (Windows OS) to support other divisions without letting investors know what they’re doing.
    Cease making claims that misrepresent: selling X number of licenses to manufacturers does not equal sales of the OS to end users
    Stop copying Apple.
    Stop copying Google.
    Stop blaming failures of their products on the manufacturers forced through MS’ monopolistic practices to use them
    Admit when they simply buy something, slap their logo on it, and sell it (keyboards, mice, etc.)
    Fire that worthless slug Balmer and get someone with vision into the position.
    Stop wasting money on products that they know are going to fail: Zune, Windows Mobile 7, Kin, Surface
    Focus on security so that AV products aren’t a necessity
    Get rid of the morass that is the functioning of .dll files
    Destroy every last vestige of the Registry
    Hire advertising companies and run ad campaigns that aren’t insulting, weird, stupid, and useless.

    That would be a good start.

  • Microsoft have not achieved any good will from the market with their practices. They use PR to spin their ethical failures, rather than addressing the ethical failures at the root. The good people they have (who attempt to gain good will from, for instance, the open source community) have their promising work routinely undermined by Ballmer and others at the top level (how many patents does Linux infringe on again?). They use legal barriers rather than innovation to retain their monopoly. They charge monopoly rents and then cite their profits to demonstrate all the good they’re doing for business, when in fact, they’re fleecing their customers. They “donate” software to charities, but do they actually make a profit (given their obscene profit margins on their monopoly cash cows, MS Windows and Office, relative to industry averages) from the tax refund they no-doubt claim? I suspect they do.

    They’re not uniformly anything, but in the end, their internal cultural jumble comes across as deceitful and mean spirited. They use spin in place of change like a slob uses deodorant in place of good hygiene.

    When MS do final change (or die), it will take them years of good faith to overcome the absolutely huge good will deficit they’ve built up.

    By the way – I believe the Microsoft virus/malware problem, which is unique to the MS Windows platform, is due as much to Microsoft’s total unlike-ability as it does to Microsoft’s cultivated user security culture of “learned helplessness”. Other platforms certainly have the potential to have equally poor security records (I believe that UNIX-derived systems like Linux are more secure by design, but with Win 7, Microsoft finally has an offering on a similar level), but the hugely incompetent workforce and users of Microsoft software, who for generations have dealt with routine insecurity, are not stepping up their game. Moreover, a lot of people really HATE Microsoft – enough to invest huge amounts of time trying to exploit their systems and make them look bad. I think that financial incentives are only a small part of the malware story.

  • Stephane Rodriguez

    “I could bring a metric shedload of commenters to your blog by saying that I don’t think Microsoft has backed down on OOXL.”

    It’s true. All you need to know is that it takes 3 product cycles for the Office guys to come up with one feature, any feature in the product.

    The problem for implementers out there is that Microsoft do not remove the failed attempts from the file format (they call this backwards compatibility) and so we end up with total garbage.

  • your article contradicts itself.

    On one hand you state quite categorically that Microsoft “has changed” – inside and out, without offering any empirical evidence of such “positive” changes.

    Then you express surprise, not nausea that Microsoft is suing Salesforce.com, as well as dissing – in tune with Apple – Google’ recently purchased VP8 media codecs which are proposed and offered as “Open Standard” Media format for HTML5. Again this objection from Redmond is without any technical merit, or any good reasons, but serves as an attempt to enslave Internet users to “proprietary”, draconian technologies.

    Your position can best be described as a Microsoft “apologist” or “dupe” since forthright, direct criticism of Microsoft’s ridiculous behavior and policies is non-existent.

  • Warren P.

    I am not a big microsoft fan, but they have done some things right that I would like to mention.

    1. Using Windows 7 every day is such an improvement over Vista. Windows 7 comes out. Where are the apple ads mocking Windows 7? Poof. Vanished. Because people actually like this version of Windows. And actually, most people liked XP. Vista was a half-baked step towards Windows 7. MS fixed it.

    2. Microsoft Security Essentials fixes, for free, what was Microsoft’s problem to fix in the first place. Their platform is so ubiquitous that it is the target of all kinds of malevolent behavior. This is as it should be. The third party anti-virus people are to be praised for trying to fix the mess Microsoft’s platform made, when it became a success. Any other platform as ubiquitous as windows would be as big a target, and as big a mess. In Windows 7 security is taken seriously, but I find I can even leave UAC on, and it doesn’t get in my way. With MSSE + Win7UAC, life on Windows is a bit better.

    Now call me a Microsoft shill if you like, but here’s the flip side to this coin; I use Macs at home, and own only Macs at home. I switched from using PCs at home to Macs, and prefer my macs. But I use Windows PCs all day at work, and I have to write software for them, that’s my job. Since the business world overwhelmingly uses Microsoft operating system products, I appreciate the steps Microsoft has taken in the past few years to make my life better.

    I still don’t LIKE Microsoft. But I’m less irritated with them right now, than I have been, at various points. And while I like Apple’s Mac products, I really don’t like the Dictatorship of Steve Jobs, the Apple iPhone Developer Agreement, and the draconian app-store approval process. I really don’t. I think lots of us think Apple is screwing up big-time on lots of things.

    So, this is opportunity time for Microsoft. So if Windows phone 7 doesn’t suck, that would be great. I kind of expect Microsoft lacks clue in this market segment. As a former Windows CE developer, I know that the platform needs a reboot badly, and I’m glad they’re doing it.

    On the entertainment console front, I’m a happy Nintendo Wii owner, and considering buying a PS3. There’s just nothing special about the XBox 360 yet. Maybe Kinect will change that?

    W