Pressing the Microsoft Self Destruct Button

Posted: November 29, 2013 in General

One of the most unique aspects of the personal computer industry, I think, is the fascination of successful companies doing everything in their power to destroy themselves.  In the 1980’s it was Apple that threw away PC industry dominance by sticking to a high-priced proprietary architecture when the world demanded open systems.  Of course, Apple has largely marched to its own drum and has variously survived or prospered.  Blindly ignoring the Apple example, IBM did the same with the PS/2 in the latter part of the decade.  Lotus committed suicide with an insistence of a copy protection scheme that did nothing more than harass legal users until Borland took over the market with Quattro Pro and its “like a book” license.  Yes.  It was Borland that beat Lotus 1-2-3, not Excel.  Not many today realize this.  

The Great Fails

WordPerfect reigned supreme until version 6 was released in 1993.  This version was bug-riddled to the point of uselessness and based on company policy they maintained their software is released bug-free and that the problems were users.  This was compounded by the fact that they also changed the file format and there were serious compatibility issues with version 4/5 files – the industry standard.  What many do not realize is that MS Word’s sudden dominance had less to do with Windows and was more because it was far less buggy and more compatible with WordPerfect files than WordPerfect.

I considered this the all-time greatest industry fail until the Palm self-destruct in the 2000’s.  Palm went from being the most innovative mobile technology company on the planet in the late 90’s to being the poster child for technological self-destruction.  Palm took one of the most innovative technologies on the planet an threw it all away by producing products people didn’t want with quality people wouldn’t tolerate at prices people wouldn’t pay.  They did all this on a timeline for which people wouldn’t wait.  Between 2006 and 2009, I have never seen a company go to as much effort as Palm did to antagonize and drive away its most loyal customers.

Well, not until now, that is.

Enter Microsoft

Enter Microsoft in the years 2012 and 2013.  To appearances, Microsoft seems to have studied the most spectacular failures of the personal computer world – failures that they took advantage of to become the most dominant computing company in the world – and found the best way to apply as many of them as possible across as many of its business arms as possible in as short a time as possible.  I wouldn’t have thought it possible, but Microsoft has managed to achieve the impossible by succeeding (?) beyond anyone’s imagination.

I suppose I have to start with Windows Phone.  Microsoft has a long history of failure with mobile computing platforms going all the way back to Windows CE (often referred to as “Wince” based on the Win CE shorthand).  It was almost a relief when Microsoft ended the Windows Mobile line at 6.5 in favor of Windows Phone 7.  I’ve played with these phones and frankly they weren’t bad.  The newly introduced Metro interface was innovative and user friendly, especially the Live Tiles.  Sure; it had an upward battle against both iPhone and Android.  However, the worst enemy of Windows Phone proved to be Microsoft.  Within mere months of the release of Win Phone 7, word got out of Windows Phone 8 and the news that there would be no upgrade path for WP7 users.  In essence, Microsoft threw its entire customer base under the bus; at least that was the perception.  At that point, who would be dumb enough to buy a premium priced phone when it had been declared obsolete by its OS manufacturer?  Sales evaporated overnight.

However, this was just practice for what we’ve seen in the last 12 months.

Microsoft has given us the trifecta of telling the customer to “stick it where the sun doesn’t shine.”

– Windows 8

– Office 365

– Xbox One

Any one of these could be understandable as a corporate mistake; Microsoft’s “New Coke,” as it were.  However, all three of these at nearly the same time is indicative of a customer dependent company that really couldn’t care less about their customers.  Let’s consider each of these, then look at the big picture.

Windows 8

At the heart of what it does, Windows 8 is actually a great operating system.  It has a smaller footprint, lower resource burden, better performance and reliability and better integration into your work environment – it makes the Cloud truly practical.  What’s not to love about it?

Well there are a few things, it turns out.  Unfortunately, those few things are aimed directly at Microsoft’s primary customer base.

First and most obvious was that it forced you into starting at the Metro interface.  I’ve used this interface on a phone and I actually like it.  I’ve used it on the tablet platform as well, and it seems a good compromise between the minimalist iPad UI and the overly geeky Android UI.  On my PC with the 27″ monitor – or even on the 19″ of one of my work boxes – it is a Fail.  Large monitors of 19″ and up are common today.  I’d go so far as to say they are the norm.  However, larger monitors sit further away.  Size and distance are the enemies of effective use of the touch optimized Windows 8.  Leaning across the desk to make grand sweeping gestures with my hands like a symphony conductor wears thin very quickly.  And that’s if you’re lucky enough to even have a touch enabled monitor.  If you’re forced to resort to a mouse, well… that phrase “forced to” says all that is needed.  If it came between allowing effective use of a mouse or supporting touch, touch won every time.  App switching, pulling up charms, you name it.  Touch took precedence over mouse.

Unfortunately, a mouse is still the most effective way to navigate a large monitor.  Also, the overwhelming majority of PC users do NOT have – and have no intention of getting – a touch monitor just so they can get a sore arm using the operating system.  Sure, you could get a trackpad, but again, why pay a premium simply to put another large, expensive, space eating device on my already crowded desk just to use the OS more effectively.

This would not have been so bad, except Microsoft forced their users to go to this interface.  There was not an option to skip onto the classic desktop.

But it was even worse.  When you did find your way out of Metro to the desktop, users were met with the next slap in the face, the Start Button was gone.  This probably didn’t seem like a big deal to Microsoft, after all Windows 3.x didn’t have a Start Button and they actually took a lot of ridicule when they introduced it in Windows 95.  Besides, the highly touted Mac OS doesn’t have a Start Button.  Mac users simply put shortcuts on the desktop or dock them to the bottom of the screen.  Win 8 users could do the same, right?  Or you could easily go back to Metro.  After all, that really was just a full page Start Menu.  Indeed, the complaints about the missing Start Button were really complaints about the Start Menu. Rather than a cluttered taskbar or desktop, rather than folders full of shortcuts, you could keep a neat, clean workspace that allowed users to access their needed tools in a clean and effective menu system.

Oops.  Microsoft was insisting you go back to the interface that was more cumbersome and less productive.  Fail.

Finally, Microsoft, in the interest of embracing the cloud and also (I suspect) to lock out competitors, took some effort to coral customers into using a Microsoft Live account.  True, one could claim they’re not any worse than Google in this respect, but really?!?  Does Microsoft need to lower themselves in their customers’ perception like this?  The recent NSA privacy flap sure isn’t any help in this matter, either.

Feeling the market dissatisfaction – outrage is probably more like it – Microsoft was quick to announce Windows 8.1.  This came complete with all the press releases about how the company is listening and responsive to their customers.

Except they didn’t and aren’t.

Yes, you can now launch to a “classic desktop.”  However, rather than having a simple toggle that you can get to from taskbar as in the old versions, making the change to start in the desktop involves navigating through Control Panel.  Not clean.  Not easy.

Regarding the ties to a Microsoft account, all I can guess is that Microsoft must assume that everyone complaining about it is employed by Google.  At this point they have doubled down on the strategy.  You cannot even use the pre-release versions without a Live ID (or whatever they’re calling it now).  They assure us that it won’t be in the released version, but the damage to perception is already done.  Also, when you consider the convolutions needed to start to desktop, I suspect this will be difficult as well.

The single worst slap in the face regarding the Windows 8.1 update is the way Microsoft has been tooting its horn about bringing back the Start Button.  This is just blatant disingenuousness.  If you want to be honest, one could argue that the Start Button didn’t go away, but just became invisible.  Hover over the spot and you’re good to go.

The problem is that the market outrage wasn’t really about the Start Button.  It was about the Start Menu that accompanied that button.  That is what users wanted.  They didn’t want their desktop context hidden behind that oversized Start Screen, breaking the flow of their work, just because they had to open a different tool.  Microsoft’s way of listening to the customer was not to restore the Start Menu in a classic mode.  It was to unhide the hotspot that switches to the Start Screen.

That’s right.  No menu.  Just a now-visible button to get you to the same frustrating launcher with all its baggage that honked off the PC community.

Rather than earning a considerable amount of goodwill, it seems Microsoft went out of its way to tell its core customers that your needs do not matter to them.

In the PC world, they will probably get away with it.  The 3rd Party world was quick to come up with solutions, as it always has been when it comes to fixing Microsoft OS shortcomings.  However, Microsoft is also trying to improve its presence in the mobile world of phone and tablet.  To do this, they need their core customers to support them.  That’s right, the same core customers they just told to “go take a walk.”

This is particularly sad, because underneath it all, Windows 8 is actually a superior OS.  It is faster, more stable and has a smaller footprint than its predecessor.  Even Metro is a good interface; at least for phone, tablet and – believe it or not – home theater.

Office 365

Closely related to the Windows 8 release, and the second part of this trifecta Fail is Office 365.  Coupled with Microsoft’s commitment to cloud computing is their decision to commit to the strategy of Software as a Service (SaaS).  The cloud part is a good thing.  There is certainly an important niche to fill for a full-featured cloud based productivity suite.  But when SaaS goes outside its useful niche?  Terrible.  Well, at least for the consumer.

Mobile users who have to switch between different devices fall into this niche.  Small, and perhaps medium, businesses who do not have or desire the IT resources to manage their installations are probably the sweet spot of this niche.  Since these subscription services can include Exchange for email services, this can be especially valuable.  For these groups, Office 365 is probably the best option.  In these cases, the cost of ownership will be advantageous for the subscription versus the traditional model.

However, Microsoft is pushing hard to get Office 365 as the primary model of distribution of Office.  This and Microsoft’s history on upgrades is where the “FAIL” comes into play.

Microsoft likes to sell the idea of Office 365 as always being the latest version of Office.  It automatically upgrades itself to spare you the trouble of having to do it yourself.  The problem is that upgrading to the latest Microsoft product or applying all the latest patches is rarely a good idea.  The rash of bad Windows patches recently should be proof enough of that concept.

As a best practice, it is a general rule that you do not upgrade your software without good reason.  “Because it is there,” is not a good reason.  You upgrade if there are new features or capabilities that you need.  You upgrade because you are encountering bugs that are addressed in the updates.  In either case, you do not want to upgrade unless you know the upgrade is safe.  For most people who do not have the resources, skills or discipline to test the upgrade, that means you don’t let yourself be the first to upgrade.  If you are upgrading just to have the latest, you are taking a huge risk with your data.

The other part of this FAIL is for whom Microsoft is marketing Office 365.  As I said, they are pushing this as their primary model for Office.  This is bad enough for businesses, but terrible to the point of a rip-off for home users.

That’s a strong statement, but allow me a moment to defend it.

Microsoft offers Office 365 for approximately $100 per year for a 5-user license.  Microsoft likes to point out that the regular price for Office for the home user is $140 for a single PC.  It will always be at the “latest” version, so you will not have to pay for upgrades.  They also tout the additional applications included in the Office 365 product; Access, Outlook, Publisher.  And that you get a 20 GB SkyDrive account and that 60 minutes of Skype is included.  It will also include use of the Microsoft apps for iOS and Android devices.

Sounds great, no?

No.

So let’s examine the baselines.

First, the license price.  I will note that Microsoft originally offered the Home and Student package at this price for three licenses rather than one.  They made this change to try and herd the uninformed into the subscription package.  In other words, they jacked up the price to over $400 for the old package.  I would note that you can still find Office 2010 licenses for around $160 on Amazon.  If it seems odd that the price of the old version has gone up, that’s because the sellers know it’s still a very good deal.  I’ll also note that the price for a perpetual license of Office 2013 can be had for less than $115.  Also note that 5 licenses only count if you actually use them.  Most of the people I know have only two installs used and occasionally three.

Second, consider how long you may keep a software package before acquiring a paid upgrade.  I’m writing this article on Office 2007.  This is probably the most used version of Office in the wild.  Before that I was using Office XP.  So both versions have at least a six year life.  Office 7, actually is still running strong on my quad-core beast and there is really nothing compelling about Office 2013 to even interest me in an upgrade.  I say this as someone who tested the preview and gold release versions of the product.  Oh, and notice that I said paid upgrade.  Service packs, bug fixes and security patches are – and will remain – free releases by Microsoft.

Finally, what about all the extra software included in the cost?  Frankly, few home users make much use of Access.  While I used to use Publisher, Word has taken on so many of its capabilities, there really isn’t that much use for it any more.  Outlook is a nice but quirky/resource hogging program if you are connecting to an Exchange server, but for everyone else I strongly suggest staying away from it.  Microsoft’s own Windows 8.1 has a nice email client built in.  Outlook.com, though web-based, is still a good email client.  Or you can download the Windows Essentials package at windows.microsoft.com if you have an earlier version of Windows.  Of course, this download is pretty much buried since Microsoft doesn’t want to let “regular people” know about these goodies.  Of course, a huge number of users don’t even need the Microsoft offerings since they are already using Gmail.  SkyDrive can be had for free with 7GB storage.  Additional storage is cheap, if you really want to go that route, at 50GB for $25/year.  (I’d urge you to look into that closely before you do it, however.)  Skype is already available for free calls between Skype users.  The “free” minutes only have a real value if you want to use Skype to replace your regular phone service.  Do you?  I didn’t think so.

Basically, there is little real added value for the typical user with the tacked on products.

So those are the assumptions.  Now let’s do a bit of math.  First, let’s assume you have Office 2007 and that you’ll be using it for at least 6 years on two computers.

Office version Cost of ownership
2007 $139
Office 365 $600

Fine, you say.  But I wasn’t lucky enough to get that great deal for Office 2007.  If I buy it, it will have to be Office 2013.  Alright.  I’ll add two licenses of 2013 to the table.

Office version Cost of ownership
2007 $140
Office 365 $600
2013 (2x) $280

And if you really, really need a license for one of the other applications, each of them are “only” about $100 each.  Why?  I couldn’t imagine, except maybe a single license for Publisher, but it’s your money.

The bottom line is that you’d have to be both a software hoarder and an upgrade geek to ever break even on Office 365.  The only one that wins here is Microsoft.  And, based on the reviews and reports that I’ve read, the rest of the user base knows it.

Xbox One

Last but not least, the third of the perfect storm of FAIL is the just released Xbox One.  I don’t expect a lot of disagreement on the previous two, but there are a lot of fanboys out there that may take issue on this prediction.  Hopefully, people will be willing to read this with an open mind.

In all honesty, I expect the Xbox One to be a fantastic piece of hardware.  I’ve long lamented Microsoft scaling back its hardware operation because I’ve always felt they make fantastic hardware.  The capabilities of the system are amazing.  Voice and/or motion control available when I walk into the room?  Wow!  This beauty was poised to end the console wars in one fell swoop.  Earlier this year, it was what was going to replace our aging Wii.  Sadly, we will not be getting one in the foreseeable future.

So how can this be a fail?

Like Windows 8 or Office 365 the problem is not the product, but the corporate attitude towards the business and their customers.

The groundwork for this failure had already been laid down in the older Xbox line with the Xbox Live Gold service.  This is a direct tie-in to the issue of Office 365.  For the most basic use of the Xbox’s online capabilities, you have to pay for a, roughly, $100/year subscription.  I’m not talking about advance multiplayer capabilities.  I’d understand a subscription for that.  I am talking about basic services such as YouTube, Netflix, Hulu or Amazon for which you already pay a fee.  I’m talking about network feeds like CW or Fox that are freely available on the web.  Heck, you cannot even use a web browser on Xbox without paying the subscription.  These are basic services that every other console provides as part of the system.  There has always been a fair amount of animosity towards Microsoft over this, but with the Xbox One we see this as a business pattern rather than one of Microsoft’s “quirks.”

The first big PR conflict occurred when it was discovered that Microsoft was going to limit the ability to resell or give away an old game.  It turns out that the console has extremely restrictive DRM capabilities and that Microsoft was going to, well, “sell out” was a phrase frequently seen, the gamers.  The outrage and backlash was extreme.  Sony took immediate advantage of the news by running ads that you would own your games if you bought a PS/4.  Microsoft went into damage control mode, issuing press releases backtracking and saying that only the capabilities were there and that it was up to the publishers whether to use them.  It sounded rather thin and lame, in my opinion.

Next, it was discovered that the Xbox One would be an always on device.  As in it would require a full-time internet connection.  It would need to “phone home” on a daily basis as part of its DRM protocols.  Not only that, the Kinect – with its cameras – was a required feature and the cameras could not be turned off.  Yes, a company that was already taking heat for working with the federal government to spy on citizens was about to release a game console that would be watching you and calling in to the mother ship daily.  Would it be used as ominously as that sounds?  Probably not.  At first.  Remember, that’s what we said about our cell phone cameras and look where that went.  Again, Sony went full tilt advertising that they weren’t Microsoft and, again, Microsoft had to backpedal rapidly issuing press releases that they changed their mind.  Xbox One would not have to call home after all and you could turn off the Kinect or even ditch it entirely, if desired.

Finally, came the issue of backward compatibility.  The short answer is that there is zero backward compatibility on either hardware or software.  If you’ve invested in additional controllers or accessories on your Xbox, forget it, they won’t work.  Your game library?  Nope.  Either keep your old Xbox hooked up or buy new games.  Sony actually started down this path as well and both pled the excuse of the architectural changes, but anyone technical knows that is a smokescreen.  Microsoft has held firm on this one – no backtracking.  Sony has now decided on a backward compatibility option by way of streaming and it is reported to work well.  Again, they are taking advantage to advertise how they are not Microsoft.

Sony’s ads really highlight the amount of catch-up Microsoft has created for itself.  When your chief competitor can not only advertise its own (excellent) platform but very effectively make a case that they won’t rip off the gamers like you are trying to do, you are in a world of hurt.  Sure,  Microsoft backtracked on two of the three moves, but the damage to the brand was already done.  Bad attitude hurts.  Actually, the people who owe the most to Microsoft has to be Nintendo.  Add the bad perception to a lack of games and a window opens for Nintendo.  Thanks to Microsoft, the Wii U is suddenly a competitor again.

On rare occasion, a company has managed to come back.  Apple is the best example.  After flops like the Lisa and Quadra lines, Apple got its act together – Ok, they got Steve Jobs back – and rose from the ashes with products like the iMac, Power Macs and a usable laptop.  Today, not only is the Macintosh line a solid option for PC’s, but Apple also makes what I consider to be the best laptops on the market.  Add in their innovations with products like the iPod, iPhone and iPad and they have earned their place in mobile history.

Can Microsoft do what Apple has done by way of being a phoenix?

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