When BIG isn’t BEAUTIFUL

Decades ago, back when I started to dabble in the computer business, everything was DOS based, the IBM operating system. It was awkward, cumbersome, counter-intuitive and basically just a pain. Getting anything done involved a knowledge of cryptic commands that took forever to learn. Bill Gates realized that we all needed a better way to interact with computers and helped to developed the Window’s GUI (Graphical User Interface) based in large part of the work of Xerox and Apple. Windows 1.0 was born and would soon become the dominant desktop interface on more than ninety percent of the world’s computers. Soon Microsoft starting flexing its wings and got involved in a growing trend to have local networks linking computers together with a central server. At the time the dominant player was Novell who had the majority of the networking market.

Back in those heady days I got involved in installing local networks. My first was using Novell, which came with thirteen extremely thick and complex manuals on how to setup a local network. I started on page one and six weeks later had a working office network. Over the course of several subsequent installs and although Novell was somewhat helpful, the best help came from Microsoft. Support was always free and incredibly responsive. On one install at midnight our time I had two Microsoft engineers on the phone helping me install a network card that wasn’t working. Their research showed that I had to cut a track on the card, which back then cost over three hundred dollars. As we were discussing the potential danger of destroying the card I went ahead and cut the track. It worked and we all shared a laugh at my gutsy move.

Yes. Those were the “good old days” when Microsoft focused on their customers and did everything humanly possible to help them. Not only did they release better and better versions of Windows over the years, but they also developed a flagship desktop software program, Office, which also quickly became the worldwide standard in desktop productivity software. Among it’s many integrated systems, Word and Excel quickly became the standard.

Over the last few years, ever since Bill Gate’s departure as Chief Software Engineer, Microsoft has made a number of missteps. They completely missed the boat on the huge potential of search engines, effectively giving the market to Google. Their foray into music sharing with Zune was a disaster, giving the market to Apple’s iPod and iTunes. They completely missed the obvious growth of smart phones and tablets. Even Windows now has a ridiculous amount of versions, and not since Windows XP, the de facto standard for years, have consumers readily understood what Microsoft is doing. Their branding has been pathetic and inconsistent at best. Their next version is widely expected to be Windows 9 and hopefully they’ll be smart enough to roll all other versions into that moniker, such as Windows 9 Professional for business.

Besides all these obvious missteps the biggest change at Microsoft has been their total lack of concern over customer complaints, best illustrated by the disaster that is Office 2013. For some completely unknown and unexplained reason, the Office team took a giant step backward and released only three themes for this version, all of them virtually unusable. The response from the prerelease focus groups was terrible. No one liked the themes. Everyone found them to be very hard on the eyes, with many visually challenged users stating they could not distinguish the “colors” of grey and they developed serious eye strain. Despite this clear feedback Microsoft decided to unleash these themes on the public. Corporate users, who, partly because of volume licensing agreements that included upgrades, but more out of habit, began rolling out the “upgrade” to Office 2013, only to be met with howls from their users that they HATED the lack of themes. At great expense they were forced to roll their thousands of computers back to Office 2010. Hundreds of posts began showing up on Microsoft’s forum under the heading “how to change the themes in Office 2013”. The early post from Microsoft ignored what users were saying and simply showed how to select from the three themes, all of which were horrible. Soon visually challenged users were complaining that they couldn’t even use the new version because of the lack of contrast. Most damaging were the posts from corporate IT people saying they would not roll-out Office 2013 until the themes from Office 2010 were restored. New users quickly began insisting that their new computers came with Office 2010 and not Office 2013.

You would think that with this massive and predictable response to the lack of themes that Microsoft would jump on this and get the Office Team working overtime to restore the themes, right? Not so. Instead the second post from Microsoft was that they were measuring “pain points”, but did not anticipate releasing any upgrades to restore the themes. The frustration and anger being expressed on this forum topic is unprecedented in Microsoft’s history. Many people are predicting the demise of Office and even Microsoft itself, but Microsoft continues to show incredible arrogance by refusing to respond to the complaints. There are even suggestions that so many programmers have left the company that they no longer have the resources to solve the problem, regardless of how pressing the issue. No one is asking Microsoft to reinvent the wheel here. They just want the previous themes to be restored. How difficult is that?

Microsoft grew to be the behemoth it is today by listening and responding to the needs of customers. Without the vision of Bill Gates the company has clearly lost its way. They’ve invested millions, if not billions, in failed ventures, often long after the market has already been captured by others. Witness Bing. Internet Explorer, once the dominant browser, has now fallen to the least used browser, allowing Chrome to now dominate the market. Apple has run away with the iPhone and iPad markets because Microsoft failed to pay attention to what customers wanted. With the release of the first iPhone Ballmer stated that it wouldn’t capture more than one or two percent of the market. Yeah, right. How’s that for “vision”?

Are we really watching the fall of the once mighty Microsoft? They may well still have billions in the bank to keep them afloat, for now, but if they continue to make the same costly missteps even money in the bank won’t save them. If I were a Google I would be investing every penny I could in developing an Office alternative. That would sound the death knell for Microsoft because it has always been their cash cow.