How can Microsoft stop us hating them?

Microsoft: Change the world or go home

So what do you think of Microsoft, eh? No, really. I want to know.

I have to admit I’m not exactly a fan. I’ll explain why momentarily. But Microsoft is changing, or at least wants to change, and I’m finding it hard to shed old impressions.

The Blue Monster cartoon is part of this changing Microsoft. Its creator, Hugh MacLeod, intended it as a conversation-starter — what he calls a social object. Steve Clayton from Microsoft UK says they use it to help Microsoft start talking about its own process of re-birth.

I’m cynical when software companies claim grand goals like “changing the world”. That over-the-top rhetoric was central to the first dot-com bubble. Usually, the bigger the rhetoric the crappier the product. Still, I’m willing to listen.

Another sign of a changing Microsoft is my friend Nick Hodge, who sold me my first Mac back in 1985. Nick now works for the Blue Monster as an “enthusiast evangelist”, and represents how Microsoft is embracing blogging and a new culture of openness — and actually having conversations with people instead of talking at them.

But can Microsoft really change and, more importantly, convince us to believe them?

Openness and transparency are important to me. As an old-school geek, I absorbed the principles of openness that built the early Internet. Bill Gates’ infamous 1976 letter to computer hobbyists expressed a commercial attitude that was at odds with that openness.

It irked me that Gates went on to become the richest man in the world by selling what I considered to be second-rate software using questionable business tactics.

I reckon the best, truly innovative software is created by awesomely-intelligent individuals or small, focussed teams like 37signals. Microsoft’s industrial-scale development process, with armies of cubicle droids, seems incapable of producing anything other than bloated, overly-complicated and buggy software.

Certainly my business clients running Windows generate far more support calls than those using Macs. Now that Apple has added what for me was the one missing feature, I intend returning to Apple’s productivity software rather than using Microsoft Office for Mac.

But, as I say, these are existing or old impressions. A young Microsoft employee told Hugh MacLeod that a lot of the culture shift inside Microsoft is generational.

The old guard is highly competitive, the new guard is more collaborative. The old guard sees Open Source as a threat, the new guard sees Open Source as an opportunity. He was confident the new guard will prevail because, of course, being young, they’ll be around for much longer. He reckoned it’ll be at least another decade before the outside world starts recognizing the change that’s currently happening internally.

Now I’m writing about this today for a reason.

Nick Hodge has invited me and a few other geeks to dinner tomorrow with Joe Wilson, Worldwide Director of Microsoft’s Academic and Enthusiast Evangelists (of which he is one). So, I know what I feel about Microsoft, and I’m interested to hear what he’s got to say — over a nice wine or two at Macchiavelli.

What do you think about Microsoft, and how would you like to see them change? Can you think they can do it?

8 Replies to “How can Microsoft stop us hating them?”

  1. Indeed they can (and are) changing. While I won’t admit to being a MS fanboy, I have, in fact, made my career off MS products.

    It’s hard to see the change when even their online efforts seem more like “me too” ideas than real innovative products that break new ground. There is no real consistent package for their online work like Google is trying to build for example, and even their consumer attempts (like the Zune) will take at least one more generation to succeed (the magical 3.0 revision).

    I live and work with MS products because I choose to — mainly because as a consultant I need to support businesses that rely on their technology. I’ve seen Microsoft’s innovation — it’s all on the back-end though. That is simply no the sexy part of computing. This is the same place where IBM was 20+ years ago — solid reliable systems running the business, but the visible part was less imaginative.

    Microsoft also has the same problem IBM had so long ago — PR. But the root problem is different than IBM’s was, and Microsoft knows they have the problem, where IBM didn’t

    The interesting part is if Microsoft can gain the ground that it’s lost when compared to Apple. Apple also has it’s failings and issues, but I’m not the right person to call them out on those.

    Ack! Look at the size of this comment! Sorry! 🙂

    Thanks for the perspective – I’m always looking for more views on Microsoft to learn from!


  2. Some openness and transparency would be a great start…

    And honesty.

    Not creating new protocols when existing standards are fully functional and well understood would also help. Can someone explain to me what is wrong with Secure IMAP that required the creation of the Outlook Exchange Transport Protocol (formerly MAPI, and still seriously dumb)? Locking people in to your ecosystem using these techniques just makes intelligent people

    Getting some basic technical stuff right, once in a while, would be good too… Seriously, what is it with a security model that defaults to giving Admin access to users and then blaming them for viruses?

    Not bleeding developing countries through insistence on very high licence fees would be nice (I live in Viet Nam, where a copy of Windows XP costs more than a month’s salary for a factory worker… and Office twice as much again). We are beginning to work around this…

    etc etc etc… most of this stuff seems to make perfect sense to anyone who isn’t a Steve Ballmer acolyte. He’s way too greedy and pig-headed to have been left in charge.

  3. I have Word deployed over a network. When upgrading from 97 to 2003 some things just fail to work, and features previously available just go missing! I used to have an image to use as a Watermark on the letterhead inserted by a global template, but as a link, so as not to be stored with the finished document. Seems sensible — does not seem odd. No longer do-able, due to a changed method of handling the links to images.

    And how many versions of Word will there need to be before outline numbering and automatic numbering are improved to a level comparable with WordPerfect 5.1 for DOS?

    When a MS team gets it right, though — it is a different story – look at Outlook (from 98 on). Very intuitive, and yet MS don’t seem to have let users in on it very well. I still encounter lots of Outlook frequent users who do not know you can type “Next Wed” into a date field, rather than looking up the date and typing it in.

    Lower TCO and improvements in NeoOffice will probably see my office move to Macs when our lease is up on the current equipment in about 18 months. And that will be without MS office

  4. @Rick Mahn and Mic Edwards and Simon Slade: Thank you for your comments, and welcome!

    To summarise your comments and those of commenters on the Link mailing list, the basic message to Mr Microsoft seems to be “stop being an arrogant arsehole and start cooperating with people”, plus “be honest, own up to the problems and fix them”. Yeah?

    Comments here and on Link talked about technical standards. Microsoft certainly has a history of ignoring established standards, making up their own, and using their dominant market position to effectively force everyone into going their way. That’s bully-boy behaviour, and intellectual arrogance.

    The erudite Bernard Robertson-Dunn provides some excellent bullet points (as usual):

    1. Windows is not an operating system, it is mishmash of desktop and server functionality. It should be modularised and layered according to good system architecture practices. Windows is not the operating system for all occasions. Different requirements lead to different solutions. Windows does not suit all devices from hand-held to enterprise server. Stop pretending it does and stop trying to make it fit.
    2. Microsoft’s products should evolve and improve, much like automotive products have over the years. There should be a process of standardisation, specialisation and optimisation. Currently, the changes in Microsoft products seem to reflect a desire to take over or shut out competition, not to improve. That’s why Vista is slow in taking hold. Vista is not seen as an evolutionary product, it is perceived as a different product that has as many disadvantages as advantages.
    3. Bill Gates was driven to beat the competition into the ground and destroy them. That was his style and his psychological make-up. Microsoft should not reflect Bill Gates any more. Microsoft needs to become a good corporate citizen or the competition will eventually destroy it. It needs to become an essential part of the IT industry, not the only player on its field of choice. Or, as Glen Turner puts it, “play nicely with others”.
    4. Microsoft is not the new IBM. IBM could deliver everything that a client needed. Nobody ever beat IBM at what IBM did best. The IT industry grew beyond what IBM did. Microsoft only develops software. Microsoft needs the rest of the IT industry far more than IBM ever did
      or does.

    I reckon that pretty much covers it. The added emphasis is mine.

    Whew! Long comments are better than puerile “Microsoft sucks!” idiocy, though.

  5. It is of course a bit late to be commenting now, however, to add some personal feeling:

    Every decision they make should have the user’s happiness and productivity much more highly ranked. Currently the focus is on trying to get the user to buy the software, instead of getting the software to be good to the user.

    No ads. No third party trial edition bundling. No windows marketplace.

    Add/Remove programs should be ubuntu’s, giving me a big list of workable software. Don’t allow bad listings, and don’t allow people to pay for listings.

    Don’t try to impress users, upgrade, trick, threaten or cajole them. Don’t focus on the OOBE at all. Worry instead about what happens at 3am the day the essay is due.

    I started my IT career at 16. Nobody told me there even were other OS’s than DOS and Windows 3.1.

    I found unix at Uni and ditifully ignored it for home use, complaining about windows along with everyone else but still using Win/Office and selling them retail/OEM.

    Windows 98’s IE tried to use push technology to give a screensaver full of USA corporate advertising in HTML. ME was a joke, 2000 had no desktop themes, broke half my games and nearly doubled the OEM price of windows. XP assumed all users were telly tubbies.

    Wrecking the Mechwarrior franchise was predictable, but still sad.

    I was proud of my hotmail account, until MS bought it and broke it.

    As a “Microsoft Partner”, I get access so some special resources. I only know what one of them is; every 3 months I get an angry orange letter giving the names and addresses of the sellers who’ve lost in court lately over selling pirated MS software. None too subtle really.

    Despite all this, all MS had to do to bring me back into the fold is to, as others have explained, play nice. I would have paid for a Windows Technical Edition, basically a version with no wizards, no third party cruft, no advertisements and no arbitrary restrictions. The sort of tools we had to get from sysinternals and apps like irfanview and winzip needed to be included and the stuff we removed (media player, MSN, the tour, image viewer,hyperterminal) had to not be there to start with.

    That was about 12 – 18 months ago. I’d bleat this mantra of Windows TE(TM) to anyone who raised the topic. I could picture it in my mind’s eye in exquisite detail.

    Now I couldn’t care less what they do. I use gentoo and promote ubuntu. For me, whatever they do will be too little too late.

  6. @Daniel Rose: If I can summarise what I’m seeing in your wonderfully detailed comment (thank you!), it’s “show some goddam respect for the customers,” yeah? More soon…

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