Has Microsoft really lost the consumer?


Despite the fact that I’ve been using PCs on and off since 1981, and remember Windows v1.0 from 1985, I’m often bewildered by Windows 7. When I want to troubleshoot my network, for example, Windows gives me generic help and instructions that often are out of context to the task at hand. Instead, I use the Mac, which puts a diagram of my network on the screen and points out where the issues are.

On Saturdays, The Seattle Times – which is my local newspaper – runs two personal technology columns: one Mac and one PC. Practical Mac talks about Apple products and trends and give tips and tricks, but it’s rarely a ‘fix it’ column. The PC column, Q&A with Patrick Marshall, is invariably dedicated to solving arcane Windows issues (it seems that every third solution involves reinstalling the operating system, the device drivers, or both). Not that the Mac doesn’t have issues too, but juxtaposing these two columns provides a contrast.

So, when Microsoft said that it had ‘Reimagined Windows’ (their term) with the release of Windows 8, many people wondered whether or not Microsoft had learned its lesson. The teaser screen-shots before release (this one is typical) made it appear that Microsoft had finally committed to usability.

But it seems that they have not. Even The Seattle Times – which is also Microsoft’s local newspaper – can’t sugar-coat the situation: the business section has been reporting on the challenges to Windows 8, and The Times is not alone in this. Everyone from The Motley Fool to Ars Technica have not been kind either.

The combination of the negative press and the product itself have had an impact. ZDNet reported in April that Windows 8 OEMs have already revised their PC sales forecasts downward for 2013. Software developers are not flocking to Windows 8 either. Through June 30th 2013, Microsoft is paying developers to write apps for the desktop and phone versions of the Windows 8 platform, in stark contrast to its competitors.

Then there’s the Microsoft Surface ‘tablet.’ Again, high expectations have given way to disappointment. One version of the Surface uses more than 2/3 of the device’s available storage space just for the operating system, whereas competing devices use much less. Retailers are discounting the Surface as well. and so are device makers.

An unfair assessment? Casting judgment while the jury is still out? The Surface provides a cumbersome user experience. It’s too thick and heavy to be a tablet, doesn’t have the solid feel of other tablets, and the keyboards are covered with a sponge-like material that would be doomed in one coffee spill flat. And not to mention how poorly the Windows 8 user interface fails to deliver past its Start screen. Why couldn’t Microsoft bring the ‘Metro’ UI across the entire Windows experience?

Compare with Apple. While Microsoft seems to be bent on putting nearly the same Windows experience everywhere, Apple has accepted that the user experience can differ from one device to the next in a device-appropriate way. A few releases ago, the conventional wisdom was that the iOS/mobile experience would also become the MacOS X experience, and this has not taken place. Although MacOS X has some iOS-like features (for example, Launchpad, a version of the Mac desktop that presents apps the same way the iPad and iPhone do), Apple did not make Launchpad the default user experience, whereas Metro is the default for Windows 8.

It’s almost as if Apple said “We’re going to try this and see if consumers adopt it” plus “Let’s make it easier for people coming to the Mac from iOS for the first time,” while Microsoft said “We’re going to tell you how Windows is going to work now.” Microsoft’s usability test facilities are top notch, but Microsoft seems more worried about making sure you know how their product works rather than taking user reactions back into product design. I’ve been in many Microsoft usability studies and I can recall several where I simply couldn’t figure something out, and the usability engineer would come out from behind the 2-way mirror and show me how it works. Think about that for a minute…

And don’t get me started about ‘the ribbon’ in Office. I was under some time pressure the other day to do an animated slide with ‘build ups’ in it. Assembling an animated slide used to be a matter of selecting objects in the slide and assigning an action to it. After 10 minutes trying to find this functionality in the UI, I gave up. Thanks.

So after nearly 30 years, the concept of Windows no longer seems to fit what consumers are buying, and Windows 8 and the Surface are case in point. It was a good run. But no, Microsoft hasn’t lost the consumer altogether. There’s still the Xbox 360, an industry unto itself.

But no matter how hard Microsoft tries, the PC roots of Windows can’t be disguised in today’s usability-driven, mobile, post PC world. As a result, Microsoft has now missed the two great device opportunities of this young century – smartphones and tablets – and has squandered its Windows franchise. Smartphones and tablets are built around ecosystems, and Microsoft apparently can’t to commit to one that extends beyond the Xbox. But ecosystems are another discussion for another day.

This wasn’t meant to be an “Apple Fan Boy” article, but Microsoft has made itself an easy target. Hopefully this situation turns around for Microsoft. But it will take an infusion of vision to make that happen, which is sorely lacking at the top. And now there are concerns that the same is true of Apple, post Steve Jobs. We need our innovators to be innovative, so let’s hope that better days are ahead for both.


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