How Microsoft’s own policies have rendered the company increasingly irrelevant

Last week, a prominent Microsoft MVP and listserv moderator, Susan Bradley, wrote a letter to Steve Ballmer asking him to look into why Microsoft released obviously broken patches and updates as part of this month’s Patch Tuesday. Ordinarily, this would be small potatoes – except it’s the third month in a row that Microsoft has released major security fixes or features, then yanked them within hours or days.

The problems at Microsoft run deeper than bad patches – even multiple bad patches in a row. To date, nothing the company has done or said, including getting rid of Ballmer, has spoken to the underlying problem.

Rampant miscommunication, zero understanding

Over the past 30 months, the software giant that popularised the phrase “Embrace, extend, extinguish” has opted for a new slogan: “Reinvent, retreat, recant.” It started with Julie Larson-Green’s announcement that Windows 8 would be driven by a new developer platform “based on HTML5 and JavaScript.” This was a bombshell and an unwelcome surprise for the vast majority of developers who were completely unsure if either of those frameworks were mature enough to serve as drop-in replacements for standard desktop tools.

Over time, Microsoft clarified the topic. Windows 8′s development stack (confusingly called WinRT) wasn’t solely reliant on JavaScript and HTML, and had never been intended to operate in such a fashion. But the pattern was seemingly set.

In early 2012, Microsoft announced that the free version of Virtual Studio Express 2012 would no longer be able to build desktop applications. Under outraged fire from its user base, which was nowhere near ready to jump for Metro-only deployments, the company reversed. Metro, of course, isn’t actually the brand anymore – Microsoft announced the name to a positive reception, then reportedly killed it when a German store chain had a legal claim.

Microsoft has never been great at communicating its own strategies, but the company’s ability to effectively parse what its customers want or need is at an all-time low. Windows 8 messaging, differentiation between Windows 8 and RT, and how-to tutorials? Terrible to non-existent. Last year, the company killed the DirectX MVP program, killed XNA development, and promised it wasn’t killing DirectX 12 – but has failed to articulate the future of these core components in simple language.

When Microsoft launched Office 365, it changed the Windows Office EULA to mandate that an Office 2013 installation was permanently tied to the PC it was first installed on, no matter what. Again, customers revolted. Again, Microsoft changed course. It was a blatant strong-arm move designed to push people into paying for cloud applications in perpetuity and a “fix” for users who only upgrade Office variants every three to five years.

Then there’s the Xbox One, where Microsoft blew the console’s big reveal in every way possible. Key questions over game distribution, second-hand sales, privacy, and always-on capability were left in limbo for weeks. The company resorted to “If you don’t like our new product, buy the old product!” messaging until finally – finally – sanity prevailed. Since then, Microsoft has revamped the Xbox One more than any console in history. The question is, how did the company misunderstand just how terribly it was communicating its own vision of the product?

Tightening the developer screws

Microsoft’s relationship with developers has never been seamless; the company has a long history of launching side projects or feature changes that promise the Earth, wander aimlessly in the real world, and exist in limbo thereafter. What’s new about recent events is that the company appears to have forgotten the components of its own ecosystem that really are vital to IT administrators and programmers.

Early this past summer, Microsoft killed Technet. Technet, for those of you who aren’t aware, was a program that allowed IT workers and testers to pay a relatively modest fee (£130 to £400) for access to the vast majority of Microsoft products. While the rise of free evaluation copies has replaced some of what Technet offers, many of the core products that dovetail with those evaluation copies are locked to Technet.

As Trevor Pott wrote at the Register: “If you want to test Microsoft software on anything excepting disposable short-term ‘free evals,’ then you will do it in the cloud and you’ll pay for the privilege. Can’t afford to subscribe to the cloud for a test lab? MSDN a little too pricy, or the restriction to development use too severe? Too bad.”

Then there’s the three-month run of bad patches, Ballmer’s 5500-word reorganisation essay that contained maybe 500 words of actual information, Surface’s total failure to gain market traction, the Windows team’s failure to deliver a product anyone wanted to use, and the questionable Nokia purchase.

Looking out over the scope of the entire situation, we see issues tied back to corporate communication, a poor understanding of the needs of its customers and users, limited ability to gain traction in new markets, and an eroding share of the consumer market. Surface was an excellent idea but failed in practice due to problems with price, Windows 8, and underlying hardware. Intel is fighting to fix these issues with Bay Trail, which means Microsoft may do the same with Surface 2.

Yes, to Microsoft’s credit, the company has corrected course on most of the issues we’ve brought up here. Indie game developers, once completely unwelcome, are being told to pull up a chair and build products for the Xbox One. Windows 8.1 fixes at least some of the problems that plagued Windows 8. The entire Xbox One concept has been overhauled. What’s not being discussed, though, is why the company cannot seem to stop blowing its own foot off, time and time again, across multiple product divisions.

Bringing the company under control means accepting a new reality

The fact that Microsoft has backtracked, reversed course, and clarified every item on this list is proof that there are still people at the company devoted to keeping it on an even keel. Unfortunately, “Look, we fixed our blunders!” isn’t nearly as attractive a sales pitch as “Look at our awesome product!” Every time Microsoft repeats the “reinvent, retreat, recant” cycle, it weakens the company’s position and leaves it looking foolish.

What Microsoft has yet to grasp – the real crux of the matter – is that no one is waiting on it anymore. Windows and Office remain essential, but no one, anywhere, is sitting around asking when Microsoft is going to build the first real messaging platform, video service, cloud storage, gaming console, media player, smartphone, connected home, or self-driving car. So when the company blows its product plans, or reveals a new strategy for charging customers twice or three times the same amount of money for a product, the response has changed from grumbling acceptance to enraged blowback.

This year, Microsoft finally rolled out an Office app for the iPhone and Android, but it requires you to have an Office 365 account. In response, Apple has made iWorks free on all new iOS devices, and Google has just announced that its Quickoffice editing suite is now free as well. Now, if you simply must have Office compatibility, that’s not an advantage. However, if you’re like the vast majority of people, who only need the ability to make simple edits or view documents on a phone, these other products are probably going to work just as well – without coming courtesy of an onerous vendor lock-in from Redmond.

Microsoft is a company with many assets and talented people, but the only way it’s ever going to solve this problem is by facing the fact that its own policies have rendered it increasingly irrelevant. Strong-arming developers and customers worked in the 2000s, when Macs lagged behind PC hardware by generations, smartphones didn’t exist, and tablets were a dream. However, it’s not working anymore.

On the subject of Microsoft, you might also want to have a gander at Life after Steve Ballmer: How Microsoft can get back on track.

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