How should Microsoft fight Vista criticism? "We're sorry" is a good start

How should Microsoft fight Vista criticism? "We're sorry" is a good start

Summary: On this week’s EIC-squared podcastLarry Dignan asked me what I would do to fix Vista’s tarnished brand if I were in charge of Microsoft’s marketing for a day. OK, I’ll take the job, but on two conditions: First, I want face time with Steve Ballmer and Steven Sinofsky. Second, I want some of those dollars Steve was going to fork over to buy Yahoo, because cleaning up the Vista mess is gonna cost some bucks. Oh, and someone's going to have to say, "We're sorry."

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I filled in for Dan Farber on this week’s EIC-squared podcast. (It’s well under 10 minutes, and we cover a lot of ground. Go listen.) In the course of our talk, ZDNet Editor in Chief Larry Dignan asked me what I would do to fix Vista’s tarnished brand if I were in charge of Microsoft’s marketing for a day. OK, I’ll take the job, but on two conditions: First, I want face time with Steve Ballmer and Steven Sinofsky. Second, I want some of those dollars Steve was going to fork over to buy Yahoo, because cleaning up the Vista mess is gonna cost some bucks.

The context of the conversation, of course, is Microsoft’s campaign to “fight back” against Vista’s poor reputation and Apple’s relentless Vista-bashing ad series. Mary Jo Foley has more details in her report from Microsoft’s Worldwide Partner Conference in Houston. I’m hearing the same messages in my conversations with Microsoft executives and product managers.

In classic Microsoft style, they can be distilled into three key points:

  • Hardware and software partners weren’t ready for the launch. As Mary Jo reports, Windows honcho Brad Brooks “acknowledged that partners stopped believing that Microsoft would ever manage to ship Vista and thus didn’t prepare adequately for the launch of the operating system.”
  • Many of the architectural changes, especially those involving security and device drivers, caused existing hardware and software to work poorly or not at all. Most of those issues have been fixed in the past 18 months, and the exceptions are generally older products whose owners have decided not to invest in Vista support.
  • Windows Vista as it exists today is not the same product that Microsoft shipped back in November 2006. Service Pack 1 is the biggest fix, of course, but Microsoft has been delivering bug fixes and compatibility updates continually via Windows Updates

There’s a great deal of truth in that summary, but it’s not the whole truth. It misses the mark dramatically by not acknowledging the negativity in the market and in the press and confronting it head on. More importantly, it doesn’t include any serious ‘fessing up to the series of blunders that Microsoft has committed over the course of Vista’s development and release. This week one of Microsoft’s top executives admitted that the changes in Vista “broke a lot of things” and “caused … a lot of pain.” Usually, that sort of confession is followed by “I’m sorry” and “Here’s what we’re going to do to make up for that pain.”

Unfortunately, Microsoft’s messaging machine has a tendency to go into spin cycle automatically. That might work for your average product launch, but it won’t cut it for Vista’s tarnished brand. If Microsoft doesn’t want to hear that from me, maybe they’ll listen to Frank Shaw, who leads the worldwide PR team in charge of Windows at Microsoft’s PR agency, Waggener Edstrom. In his blog this week, Frank offered some excellent advice. It was on a completely different subject, but it could just as easily have been addressed to Steve Ballmer and Steven Sinofsky. Here, judge for yourself:

[Y]ou don’t get a multi-day news cycle like they’ve just gone through without at least considering the idea that just maybe you are not being successful in getting your POV into the market (or in web 2.0 speak, that you are not “participating in the conversation.”)

I think it’s fair to say that 18 months of merciless, nonstop Vista-bashing qualifies as a “multi-day news cycle” and that Microsoft pretty much avoided “participating in the conversation” until just a couple of months ago, after the release of Vista Service Pack 1. (For the first six months after Vista’s retail launch, remember, they wouldn’t even acknowledge that Vista was going to have a Service Pack 1, much less discuss its details.)

Frank continues:

[O]ver the last several years [they] have not adjusted their self image with the image the rest of the world has of them, and that self perception gap is one of the biggest causes for communication failure. You can see this play out time and time again. Established sports stars who still think of themselves as fighting for respect are suddenly seen as arrogant, companies who keep acting like they are a start up when they have achieved big market success are seen as bullies, and a fun loving web site cataloguing cool things comes across as a bunch of priggish censors.

One of the key roles PR can play is making sure that companies/individuals understand how the rest of the world sees them, and calibrating the communication accordingly.

Right now, much of the world sees Microsoft as rudderless and unable to deliver a competent product. Apple has reduced Vista to a pitiful caricature in ads that are brilliant and memorable, even if they are grossly exaggerated and occasionally just plain wrong. Microsoft has responded with white papers, keynote addresses, and spin-laden press releases. They brought a knife to a gunfight.

Frank’s conclusion applies almost perfectly to Microsoft:

[T]he story is not over yet, because they’ve violated another rule of crisis communications: own your news, and get it all out early so you can declare an end to the crisis.

Exactly. So maybe, in the spirit of owning the news, Microsoft could admit that they screwed up when they put Intel’s interests over those of their customers in the “Vista Ready” and “Vista Capable” logo snafu. It would be nice to think that some heads rolled for that one, and it’s worth noting that Sinofsky, who’s now in charge of the Windows development effort, was harshly critical of the decision.

While they’re in an apologizing mood, Microsoft could say a hearty “we’re sorry” for the confusion that roiled the Windows ecosystem in early 2007. Yes, some of it was the fault of OEMs and software partners who didn’t pull their weight. But Microsoft has to shoulder at least part of the blame, and a little humility would go a long way.

Of course, talk is cheap, which is why I said right up front that I need some Microsoft bucks to really sell this message. Here’s how I propose spending them:

  • Free support for Vista issues. Yes, there are people struggling with computers that run Vista poorly or have reliability and compatibility problems. In most cases, there’s a fix for the problem. So why not offer a toll-free number where Vista users can get help and support, even if they purchased Windows Vista with a new PC from an OEM? This doesn’t have to be a permanent fixture, but a free Vista support hotline that runs through the holiday season would go a long way toward reassuring customers. Microsoft has taken a baby step in this direction with its Small Business Assurance program. Try doing the same for consumers, OK?
  • Free upgrades for early adopters. Any consumer who can show a receipt for a copy of Windows Vista purchased in the first few months after retail launch – let’s say before September 30, 2007 – should get a free upgrade to the next highest Windows version. Your copy of Vista Basic earns a license for Home Premium; Home Premium and Business get bumped up to Ultimate; and Ultimate customers get a second license for personal use (not for resale).

There’s plenty of good stuff in Windows Vista, and it deserves to get some exposure in clever, hard-hitting ads to counterbalance the Apple FUD. But don’t ignore the people who suffered during Vista's early days.

Topics: Operating Systems, Microsoft, Software, Windows

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340 comments
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  • For what?

    I know you've found a few problems Ed, but for me and some of my colleagues who went out and bought new computers, we've had no problems. Certainly a lot less than I had with Win 98,98,ME and XP.

    Any sort of problem with Vista is magnified by the whining comments from the fanbois who don't use it ;-)
    tonymcs1
    • Oh come on!

      Sony Via (Ed's multi-day effort to get the machine working). 5 part series to get Vista working well (which I hope Ed gets paid $5M from MS for doing all their work for them). Vista Capable/Ready lawsuit. Millions upon millions of disgruntled customers.

      I used it, it came with my eMachine. SP1 fixed it so that it would remember my WPA phrase (never did, ever). It is still slow, and only used it to look at it, it still does not like marginal hardware (performance).

      Anyway, I suspect Sony only sold 3 notebooks, and that was the sum total of Vista's impact right?

      TripleII
      TripleII-21189418044173169409978279405827
      • Oh come on yourself!

        Vista is no worse when it came out than XP was when it came out.

        The typical machine when XP as released was a PII class machine with 128MB of RAM. The exact same criticisms being layed on Vista today were being layed on XP when it came out.

        The big exampless you have given are OEM problems, not Vista problems.
        toadlife
        • Vista's launch compared to XPs

          You say that Vista's launch is comparable to XPs. Well I quite remember all the problems with the XP launch but you might be right...

          The only problem is, I think people's expectation with their computers and how computers interact with their lives have gone up.

          So the problems with XP were "OK", those same problems with vista were "Unacceptable".

          And I don't think that is a bad thing. The bar has been raised, for quite a few reasons. The industry has matured. XP has matured over time, and people are starting to question the quality of the releases.

          These are good things. M$ deserves what they got. Even though Vista is just XP all over again.
          gtimchishen
          • MS Did

            What everyone was begging them to do. Drop backwards compatibility for the sake of stability and security. They delivered on that end. Software and hardware partners not being ready for the new OS may be partly MS's fault but they should have known. nVidia caused almost 1/3 of all Vista crashes in the first year. That's a pretty high margin.
            LiquidLearner
          • You're correct

            Expectations probably have gone up, but as others have said, this is largely an issue with OEMs. OEMs do lots of testing before a model goes on sale.

            In this case, Emachine knew that their h/w was sub par (assuming the machine is as painful as he implies).

            Now vista machine should ship with less than 1GB of ram, and by the time it came out, I personally felt that 1.5gb (so 2GB) was what you should get in an XP machine.

            I assume that this model had an intel IGS. While MS shouldn't have give put it on the capable list, the reality is that OEMs (all of them) KNEW that it wasn't good enough for anything other than Basic. To me, capable always meant Basic/Aero turned off). most of the reviews I read said that too.

            Bottom line is never [b]ever[/b]by a machine with an intel solution. They've always been lousy and they're still worse than stand alone solutions that cost under 50 bucks.
            notsofast
          • XP is NOT Vista is NOT XP

            "So the problems with XP were "OK", those same problems with vista were "Unacceptable"."

            That is because there was adequate overlap between Windows 98/ME/2000/XP

            Basically, when Windows 2000 came out, there were very few applications that refused to run on it. Windows 2000 was MS's crowning achievement. I have 2000 machines that have been running since 1999.

            XP accepted all of the programs 2000 did and also accepted some 16 bit DOS programs. Windows 2000 drivers worked for XP.

            But XP really did not become solid until service pack 2. XP Pro/SP2 is about the most solid OS, and Vista has a long way to go to beat that. Give it another 2 service packs... Hopefully by that time MS will make something new that has less oversecurity and greater cross-compatibility all the way back to Windows 3.11 (Several 3.11 programs work on XP with help- They are now Hardblocked under Vistsh_t SP1- But they can be unblocked with Application Compatibility Toolkit.

            The fact is, Vista has simply too many programs that still will nto work. Using the Application Compatibility Toolkit, some of this *huge* problem can be dealt with... But the fact is, you still have to download the ACT and the Application list update- At this time, the Application Compatibility Toolkit should be standard equipment for Vista until I can run ALL of my programs (not just the new ones, but the old ones I still use to get my work done).

            "These are good things. M$ deserves what they got. Even though Vista is just XP all over again."

            No... Vista is practically a whole other thing, EVERYTHING has been changed. Everythng that matters.

            Also... I have always said, that Microsoft's premature ejaculation of Vista caused developent of 64 bit OS's and systems back at least 5 years.

            Intel STILL does not have a 64-bit CPU, dual, Quad, or whatever, that I can buy for less than 100 dollars like I can get the AMD AM2 chips for, the first Core Duos did not have the 64 but instruction set. The new 64 bit instruction set is NOT a true 64 bit set like thr AMD set is- And Windows XP x64 on an Intel CPU is NOT acceptable, neiother is Vista 64 bit.

            MS should have developed XP x64 for a whole other year, with emphasis, before even thinking about vista. That way, Intel would have had to follow suit with a cheap true x64 processor instead of reverse engineering AMDs instruction set.
            XweAponX
          • XP problems

            XP may have had the usual batch of incompatibilities and problems, but at least it did one thing right. When given the recommended hardware it ran smoother and quicker than it's predecessor. Vista is always a dog compared to XP, regardless of hardware. A quick scan of the reviews way back in 2001 confirm this.
            Ian_
          • Your memory is a little faulty

            http://blogs.zdnet.com/Bott/?p=382

            In 2001, InfoWorld was writing this about XP, based on its lab testing:

            2001: ?Windows XP increasingly ate the dust of Windows 2000 as load ramped up, regardless of machine specs or Office version.?

            2001: ?Shops lured by XP features should weigh their options carefully. In many cases, these features may not be compelling enough to justify saddling your end-users with a slower OS.?
            Ed Bott
        • MS still shares some of the blame

          If those specs were not good enough to run the software they [u]should have said so[/u]. Instead they caved in to the demands of OEMs wanting to sell cheap underpowered hardware and made the minimum listed specs for the software too low for realistic usage. MS was guilty of this for XP and they are guilty of this for Vista.

          MS needs to keep this in mind: most people are going to want to run anti-virus software (and other utilities) as well as one or more third party programs. If the specs are not good enough to be running any of the major AV programs and an office suite with two documents all at the same time, then the specs are too low for mainstream usage.
          Michael Kelly
        • NO, you come on...

          [i]The typical machine when XP as released was a PII class machine with 128MB of RAM. The exact same criticisms being layed on Vista today were being layed on XP when it came out.[/i]

          EXCEPT, that the only thing I had to upgrade at that time was the RAM.

          NOW if you want to go to Vista, you have to upgrade the whole machine as well...
          hasta la Vista, bah-bie
          • Not necessarily ...

            ... Vista installed without any problems on a Dell Dimension 4100 (866MHz, 512MB RAM) that I bought in 2000. It was SLOW but it was stable and did what I needed it to do.

            In a more realistic upgrade, also in 2007, I put Vista on a two-year-old Dell GX280 (3.4GHz, 1GB) and it ran fine. I added 1GB of RAM and it is now my primary machine.

            With 2GB, even my three-year-old 1.9GHz laptop runs Vista quite well.
            M Wagner
          • Yes, necessarily...

            I ran the M$ Vista upgrade tool beforehand to see what my machine will take. It said due to the specs of my machine, I could upgrade to Vista Home Business and would have to update a couple of driver upgrades. I found the Vista ATI and Sigmatel drivers, no problem.

            I put Vista Home Business upgrade on the 2005 Sony VGN-A600 2.13GHz Pentium M with 2GB of RAM and after 3 hours of loading it on there, it was slow as molasses to navigate anywhere at all. That HD amber was glowing constantly. Bootup times were about 4 minutes.

            I put up with it for about a week, going through forums looking for fixes, but ultimated I got disgusted with the whole thing. The performance hit was so bad that I was lucky I Ghosted the HD beforehand and out XP back on the machine.

            Vista is nothing but POS crippleware. Time for them to start over.
            hasta la Vista, bah-bie
          • Two questions

            1) Was that a clean install of Vista or an upgrade install?

            2) Was that the only machine you've tried with Vista as it's OS?
            Badgered
          • Two answers

            [i]1) Was that a clean install of Vista or an upgrade install?[/i]

            Upgrade. I said so in my post.

            [i]2) Was that the only machine you've tried with Vista as it's OS?[/i]

            Nope. Upgraded a 2002 Gateway P4 desktop with 1 GB of RAM with Vista Home Basic, which was the version OS that the upgrade tool recommended. That too was a disaster since I couldn't even find video & audio drivers for that one. And since I didn't Ghost that HD (my mistake) and couldn't find the original OS discs after the fact, it just sits there as a print server/wireless hub because we at least could get the Linksys wireless USB card to work.

            We shouldn't have believed that upgrade tool. Our mistake.
            hasta la Vista, bah-bie
          • good lord....

            Both of your instances were upgrades. As they have found, (and with any MS OS it seems)the biggest SNAFU is to upgrade it. Cardinal rule is:

            NEVER UPGRADE. ALWAYS CLEAN INSTALL.

            So your ancedotal evidence is nothing becuase thats all it is. You have a predjudice becuase all you did was upgrade.

            try wiping that second computer, and run a clean install. you would be AMAZED how well it runs. No previous drivers from an older OS causing issues, fresh set up.

            Your "POS Criooleware" comment is typical FUD. Geeze
            ivanotter
          • I'm not buying your story

            having put Vista on a very similar notebook it runs fine. And I've never seen a Vista install take more than 30 minutes.
            marks055
          • I don't care what you buy, fanboy

            [i]I'm not buying your story[/i]

            That was my experience. Take it or leave it.

            ~

            Oh and to answer ivanlotter, an upgrade is exactly that. An upgrade. That means you HAVE to have a version of the previous OS on your machine before you can install it. Even the outside of the box tells you so. DOH...

            Now if that's not the case, then that's false advertising on M$'s part. That along with their Vista upgrade tool and those silly "Vista capable" stickers they put on the outside of many machines. I'm glad their being sued over that. Gives M$ another excuse to pay for their expensive legal team.
            hasta la Vista, bah-bie
          • well...

            You're using a pentium M for Christ's sake. I have a pentium 4 with HT running at 3 Ghz.
            Took half an hour or so to load Vista. Also, you PROBABLY had bad drivers from XP. XP drivers are not necessarily (read: almost never) compatible with Vista. An upgrade with no HDD wipe is usually not a good idea. I just backed up my documents, settings, and anything important then installed Vista. Worked superbly. Vista found everything it needed, and all my hardware worked. I wasn't stupid enough to install nVidia's drivers, but Vista picked up the GeForce 7900GS from eVGA no problem. Home Premium with full eye candy. No issues. Maybe you should have READ THE FORUMS about the fact that Vista is NOT an upgrade of XP. It's a whole new system that emulates XP, which is why XP programs *COULD* run slower.
            evilkillerwhale
          • well...

            [i]You're using a pentium M for Christ's sake. I have a pentium 4 with HT running at 3 Ghz.[/i]

            M$?s own Vista Upgrade Advisor tool said it could be done, so... I took their word for it at the time.

            Gee, don?t tell me they [i][b]LIED[/b][/i]? ;)

            [i]Took half an hour or so to load Vista. Also, you PROBABLY had bad drivers from XP. XP drivers are not necessarily (read: almost never) compatible with Vista.[/i]

            So I found out. And?

            [i]An upgrade with no HDD wipe is usually not a good idea.[/i]

            It said on the box it could be done. My machine met the requirements. Check out what M$ claims it can run on.

            http://www.microsoft.com/windows/windows-vista/get/system-requirements.aspx

            [i]I wasn't stupid enough to install nVidia's drivers, but Vista picked up the GeForce 7900GS from eVGA no problem.[/i]

            Neither was I, but it turns out no Vista video driver for the old ATI card that was in the Gateway could be found. Haven?t checked to see if there's been one lately, but I?m not holding my breath. I did find one for the Sony, but that machine is 3 years newer.

            [i]Home Premium with full eye candy. No issues. Maybe you should have READ THE FORUMS about the fact that Vista is NOT an upgrade of XP.[/i]

            Then why bother selling the upgrade version of Vista?

            http://tinyurl.com/5jtjdt

            http://tinyurl.com/5ey9ba

            They [b]call it[/b] an "upgrade". If it?s not an upgrade from XP then maybe they should stop selling this, don?t-cha think?

            [i]It's a whole new system that emulates XP, which is why XP programs *COULD* run slower.[/i]

            Gee and all those thousands of people thought otherwise... No wonder they?re facing a class-action lawsuit.

            http://tinyurl.com/6pg5ka

            And to think M$ is looking out for everybody...

            My oh my... tsk...tsk...tsk...
            hasta la Vista, bah-bie