Microsoft's baffling 'multiple personality disorder'

Microsoft's baffling 'multiple personality disorder'

Summary: We pundits and columnists and techies look at the company with suspicion, because we never know from moment-to-moment whether we'll get the Good Microsoft or the Bad Microsoft.

TOPICS: Microsoft

Microsoft is an odd company. There's no other way to say it. Sometimes, when dealing with the company, you encounter the absolute height of competent professionalism. Other times, you encounter an almost wacky disregard for logic.

A handful of examples

Last week, I wrote Apparently, Microsoft takes this Office 365 support thing seriously, which described the truly excellent level of support I received setting up Office 365.

On the one hand, for Office 365, the level of customer support was stellar. On the other hand, for Windows 8 ordering, the level of customer support was execrable.

But then I was reminded about the absolutely frustrating and completely unsatisfying experiences my wife and I had when attempting to buy our copies of Windows 8 Pro at the $39.99 price, before it went up to $199 (plus $14.95 if you want a disk).

We wanted to buy five copies of Windows 8 (which was the maximum allowable). To do this, you had to download and run an application on the target machine (or a target machine). If the application thought Windows 8 would run on that machine, it would let you buy it. At least, sometimes.

First, it insisted on doing a long scan of the machine. Then you could run through the application's purchase form. But you couldn't say that you wanted to buy a quantity of five units. No, instead you had to fill in your information each time, and run through the whole process.

That wouldn't even have been terribly annoying if the application hadn't responded with: "We couldn't finish processing your order." The thing was, there was no follow-up information on what to do about it. Just the message. 

Some detective work helped us discover that a payment processor named Arvato was managing the payments, but calls to them netted no useful information. Calls to Microsoft Windows 8 support got us bounced all around the company. Calls to the number the Microsoft support person on the Microsoft boards suggested calling also got us bounced all around the company, often with long waits and reps telling us they had no idea who was responsible.

We were often sent right back to the place from which we'd been forwarded from, in some sort of customer service infinite loop of insanity.

Windows 8, when you get past the stupid, works like a champ.

We wasted hours on this. Eventually, we went from machine to machine and used credit card after credit card, and some combination of factors (we even tried ordering from a different external IP address) let us get our software. But Microsoft was no help. None at all.

So, on the one hand, for Office 365, the level of customer support was stellar. On the other hand, for Windows 8 ordering, the level of customer support was execrable.

This multiple personality disorder exists throughout the company

Windows 8 is the perfect example with its modern Metro UI vs. the desktop interface. The two are completely different beasts, yet they've been plastered together with duct tape, and we, the users, are expected to make the cognitive jumps between the modes.

Or take the Kinect interface for the Xbox. The Kinect is undoubtedly amazing technology, but when it first came out, I discussed the problem, stating:

But there's a serious problem. The Kinect is modal as all heck. In other words, you can use the Kinect features in only certain portions of the Xbox interface, and even there, it's not consistent.

Microsoft figured that they'd get the feature out into the market, and then, over time, they'd clean it up and make it consistent. But in the early days of the product, you had this situation:

Also, while the Microsoft ads talk about using the Kinect to swipe your hand and play videos, those are only videos you've purchased and downloaded through the Zune store, itself a completely modal interface separate from the modal interface of the Kinect hub, and a separate interface from the Xbox dashboard. If you want to play videos from a connected Windows Media device, they're only accessible through the main dashboard's video interface — and not using the Kinect.

Then there's the Zune (remember that?), the Xbox, and the Surface. Microsoft has entirely different interfaces and entirely different brands for their hardware products. You'd think, with a product as wildly successfully and smartly done as the Xbox, that they'd continue that brand, and use the lessons they learned. You'd think. But no.

Instead, while the Xbox stands as a bright light in the middle of a bombed-out crater of cognitive dissonance, the other brands are either struggling, or simply doomed due to lack of interest. Remember the Kin? I wouldn't blame you if you didn't.

The asylum

My point is that not only are Microsoft's inmates running the asylum, the inmates of each wing of the asylum are running their own wing, and doing so completely differently than the inmates of the other wings.

Few of us question Microsoft's engineering chops. Okay, you Linux kids do, but you're never going to play well with others. The rest of us adults can generally agree that Microsoft can build some serious tech. Kinect is brilliant. Windows 8, when you get past the stupid, works like a champ. Office is incredibly capable. Windows Phone is even a fine piece of engineering. Jason Perlow reports (and I totally believe him) that Lync is excellent.

It's not the engineering I question. It's the marketing.

Or, to put a finer point on it, it's the product marketing and brand management of the products. I haven't been inside Microsoft in years, so I don't have a direct insight into how they manage their products. But I imagine they have teams and meetings and discussions and arguments, and eventually everyone comes to a compromise.

I can see it in my mind's eye.

One group insists it will take another few years to completely redesign the Xbox interface to use Kinect, but another wants to bring it to market now. Compromise. One team has an uncompromising vision for Windows 8, but another group recognizes that we all need the desktop. One team wants to make sure enterprise customers move to a cloud delivery mechanism for Office so it ups the support level, while another doesn't want to be bothered by millions of clamoring customers when the Windows 8 discount offer is about to expire.

In the end, they all compromise. Microsoft tries to be all things to all people — not only for their customers, but for their internal interests as well. Sounds a lot like Congress, doesn't it? And that sure works well (he says with deep, sad sarcasm).

Unfortunately, all that compromise and modality and lack of predictability puts Microsoft into its current position.

Windows 8 — an actually excellent operating system — is universally panned because of an incredibly stupid decision to leave off the Start menu. Or the company gets a reputation for poor support from Windows 8 purchasers while another part of the company is providing best-of-breed support. Or customers (a few) buy the Windows Surface RT only to get it home and be baffled why they can't run their Windows software on it. And don't even get me started with the idea that the Surface comes with Office, but is explicitly not licensed to be used in, you know, an office.

This story goes on and on and on within Microsoft

We pundits and columnists and techies look at the company with suspicion, because we never know from moment-to-moment whether we'll get the Good Microsoft or the Bad Microsoft.

This is more pathology than management strategy. If you went to a doctor and said you never know from day-to-day whether you'll get the Good Steve or the Bad Steve, there would be a psychological diagnosis provided forthwith.

I'm not going to go in and pick the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders code for Microsoft, but I'll tell you this: the company has multiple personalities and you never know which one you'll get at any given time.

This, ultimately, is what drives many of us crazy. We want to work with Microsoft. We need to work with Microsoft. We just never know which Microsoft we're gonna get.

Topic: Microsoft


David Gewirtz, Distinguished Lecturer at CBS Interactive, is an author, U.S. policy advisor, and computer scientist. He is featured in the History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets and is a member of the National Press Club.

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  • best analysis

    of the company I have read in a long time. It mirrors my own personal experience and observations 100%.
    • Interesting, but not limited to Microsoft.

      Singling out Microsoft is fun, but really you get this split personality from all major tech companies....Google, Apple, Oracle, the lot. This is not unique to Microsoft.
      • response to post:

        response to post:

        Windows 8: support bad because they have the monopoly, customers almost have no choice.

        Office 365: has competition (google docs), everything needs to work and please the customer.
        Henrique Dourado
      • Not True

        You can find small areas where split personality affects Apple, but Microsoft is the worst. You can buy Surface tablet online but if you go to Microsoft store you cannot return it. The decision to leave off Start menu from Win8 is terrible. The author also mentions a huge disconnect with Kinect interface on Xbox which I'll take his word for.

        Apple doesn't suffer from this kind of disconnect on an across the board basis. Yes, Apple Maps was bad, but that's just one app, it's doesn't reflect the company as a whole. Microsoft as a whole company seems disjointed and disconnected in some major way or form. Even their Office product is disjointed as the author mentioned, Office is not explicitly licensed to be used in an Office.

        Perhaps it starts from the bottom? Ever wanted to visit India? Don't have to. Venture down NE 40th St in Redmond, WA and you're in Bangalore. No, not all Indians have glasses, jeans, and wear backpacks, but that's all you'll see walking around campus and inside the Connect buses traveling to and fro. If India weren't a former British colony english would be second language on campus.

        India is a country notorious for having weak ineffective leaders and a very divided country, with various religious and political factions in every part, but a very high concentration of good engineers and this describes Microsoft to a tee.

        If Microsoft wants to be more like Apple, (and yes that's exactly who they aspire to be, they didn't come out with their graphical user interface, retail stores, Zune, Windows Phone, and Surface because they are just a hotbed of ideas, they only know how to follow the leader) they need to put designers in charge.

        Microsoft lacks a good design sense, good taste in their software implementations. They also need to come up with some unique ideas for a change and make others follow them instead of following others all the time.
        • @Maha - Thank you, Thank you, THANK YOU!

          Everything you said from 40th Street to designers in charge is absolutely true! I have two things to add:

          1: Microsoft needs a CEO who does not spend a significant amount of his time defending his job against his direct reports (and, it needs an executive suite that isn't just a bunch of people after the top job.)

          2: Get rid of the damn curve already! Microsoft's performance management does NOT normalize employee performance, as is claimed. It normalizes and rewards taking territory by force. The winners in this system are the ones who succeed in getting their pet product or idea into the ecosystem, regardless of whether it's good for the company, the product, consumers, etc...

          When you effectively have your top management distracted by internal politics, and all of your employees are rewarded for their skill at internal politics, then the outcomes that we see in the real world; the Metro/Desktop disaster, UAC in Vista, The ribbon in Office, the constant catch-up with Apple et. al. is really not that surprising.
        • I somewhat agree

          I hate Microsoft Advertising campaigns...pure rubbish. Apple campaigns are much, much better. They sell the product by demonstrating how to use their products. That isn't to say that they are the best innovators...They have borrowed many ideas to build their products, and they have traditionally done an excellent job at it.

          However, what innovation have we seen from them lately? When Steve Jobs passed away, their was a fear that innovation would pass with him, and after the pipeline that he filled was depleted, innovation might stall. Well, we haven't quite hit the point of the depleted pipeline, but if we look back over the past year or two, it is hard to find any true innovation coming from Apple....

          What we have seen is 1) increasing specs on the same product designs, 2) decreasing size of the same product designs, 3) a few new features in the OS borrowed from MS, Google and others. Has the true innovation dried up now that Steve isn't around to drive it?

          In contrast, Microsoft has actually become the innovator when in comparison to Apple. Do they always execute their designs in coordination with their marketing as well as Apple? I'd say no. BUT, that isn't to say they haven't pushed innovation, because they certainly have.

          Love it or Hate it, their new UI design is unique and a radical departure from the old. Driving Personal Computing to a more personal level than ever before, without sacrificing the power to get things done is a risky proposition, but they seem to be hitting on some very good ideas. Not all perfect, but some are very, very good.

          Before Windows 8, I was considering a new Mac Book....but now I can't imagine a new Laptop without a touch screen....It seems odd and old not to have it. Microsoft's Cloud integration puts Apple's to shame and is improving every release.

          Microsoft is definitely ahead of the pack in the convergence of mobile, PC, Phone, TV, Cloud etc....and they aren't done yet.

          The accusation that they have split personality disorder is sort of fair....especially if you realize why they are doing it. Windows 8 is a bridge OS to help us bridge the past, the necessity to get work done (not just post drivel on facebook), with the future....and the future looks bright.

          Who will ultimately lead us there? Will it be Apple? Will it be Microsoft, Google? Facebook? I dunno for certain. It will probably the competition of all of them that gets us there.
          • A PR overhaul as well as customer service is needed

            I totally 100% agree with the sentiment that there appears to be no company-wide unified strategy. It's all very well requiring of the user a single Hotmail/Outlook email address (or Windows Passport, or Windows Live Login, or however it's being branded this year) but the experience differs from product to product, service to service.
            I think that what Microsoft needs is a PR overhaul; they need to change the way that people VIEW their services as much as they need to update their customer service.
            In fact, I wrote s blog post on this very subject recently:
    • Ditto

      There are ever growing disconnects within the company since Gates left. They are sorely lacking a cohesive vision. They've turned from careful long term planning to gut reaction fire fighting. After Gates left, they basically "stayed the course" until the market very suddenly shifted with the tablet craze. They have floundered ever since. Rather than focusing on developing an ecosystem which plays on the strengths of desktops and tablets working well together, they decided to shoehorn a tablet interface onto everything. That shouts, "lack of foresight." They so easily could have produced the ultimate complementary tablet for the desktop. Instead they crippled desktops in order to jump on the tablet bandwagon. They're headed into oblivion if they don't shift gears.
      • "stayed the course" until the market very suddenly shifted with the tablet

        No, they have been floundering far longer than that.

        All the effort they wasted on MP3 players and music service: failed catch up attempts.

        All the effort in Win CE and PDAs and phones: a failed attempt to catch up in PDAs and smart phones.

        Longhorn: 3 years late and it came out as Vista.

        Now the tablet/phone/mobile mess continues.

        David's assessment of M$ is spot on! (I always said it was because it was run by committees running committees running committees, and at the bottom are 3 programmers trying to make everyone happy so they don't get sacked!) Whatever the real reason, they need a visionary/dictator like Jobs. He was often a jerk, but he was one of the most successful men in history. (Balmer has the jerk part right, now if he could just make out with the vision and success parts...)
        • Oops, I forgot to mention all the time and effort wasted with search.

          Oops, I forgot to mention all the time and effort wasted with search. MSSearch, LiveSearch, BingSearch, how many names did it have?
    • Well done

      Excellent analysis David.
  • Engineers are a crazy bunch of wackos

    And the better the engineers, the crazier they are. As you not, MS have some of the best engineers in the world writing their technologically amazing software. This is a good problem to have.

    What they lack is vision. Gates had a singular vision: Embrace and extend what the enterprise doing. Indeed, one must wonder what would happen if he gave up his life doing good (atoning, perhaps?) to return to the dark side and helm the MS Death Star. It'd be a scary day in the tech world, indeed. But if the lunatics (engineers) are running the asylum, we need to look at the warden (CEO). He has all the tools he needs to put out the fires and get things under control. He simply hasn't. The blame lies there.
    x I'm tc
    • Dont' Lump engineers into one group.

      Both Google and Apple are very consistent with their engineering, Microsoft isn't. Google you expect it to work at least with some level of functionality, may not be user friendly and they follow keep it simple practices. Apple builds things and test them and removes anything not user friendly. I would consider Apple engineering practices keep it easy (for the users). With Microsoft it is always random.
      • I disagree

        Apple is just as inconsistent. The difference is they try for less and often achieve that. They don't try to make their products do very much, they focus their products ability to do just a couple of things, and do it well. But they are just as crazy as everyone else. For instance, they tried to make us believe that a mouse only needs one button for like forever...then when they decided two buttons made sense, they convinced us that they invented the correct implementation of the two button mouse....or the 7in tablet which was stupid, until they re-invented it...etc. etc... it goes on and on. The next invention they will unleash upon us will be touch on laptops and desktops....which is stupid now, but when they re-invent it will be the most amazing thing ever.
  • Let me sum it up for you ...

    Microsoft spends so much time trying to keep it customers from getting just a little bit of extra value for free (DRM, License Checking, Media Center, MS Office, etc...) that they put up barriers to the users adopting and enjoying the products. When that happened it the past, people looked around and said "well there aren't too many viable options that I am comfortable with", so they just stuck with Microsoft.
    Now with Android, iOS, improved Linus UI, etc... many people no longer feel limited and are free to go elsewhere. Thankfully for Microsoft, a new school year will be starting in the Fall of 2013. Some will continue to just chose the Windows default as they have in the past and that could make the Windows 8 numbers look reasonably better (because Microsoft missed the Fall of 2012 Windows 8 buy last year). However, I think MANY people will be questioning the value of Windows 8 (and the rest of the Microsoft Software Suites) and looking over their options. Microsoft may want to think about being as aggressive as they can at keeping customers happy with their products before buyers chose one of the other options and don't look back to see what they aren't missing.
  • All companies are a bit like that

    They all make mistakes, release lousy products,... and sometimes good or even great products.

    Failure is not something that only MS knows the taste of, remembering Apple maps, Google wave or reader (and reader was actually nice - probably unprofitable), IBM OS/2, ....

    The biggest bad thing about Microsoft in recent years, is that they were unable to set the path regarding innovation and new services/products - Apple, Google and others were faster and better than them. In my opinion they were too afraid to fail, they have money to make experiences, to try new approaches, they should stop focusing on releasing/developing products/services that they are positive sure will turn into another $1 billion division.... that is costing them a lot IMO... Maybe they should get inspired by the Charles Bukowski's "roll the dice" poem :)
  • the only personality disorder Microsoft has

    is the disorder of the bald guy's personality
    • Yeah...this problem belongs at Balmer's Doorstep

      I'm often guilty of looking at the past through rose-colored glasses. However, in this case, the past with Gates was pretty good. He was pretty good. Balmer is not, and now, neither is Microsoft. Their stock price has been stagnant for over a decade. It's almost like he has some kind of blackmail evidence over the board of directors. I don't get it.
  • Microsoft

    Finally, a good analysis of Microsoft. It matches my experiences perfectly.
  • Windows 8 in not fully done.

    But MS can't wait 6 years to get the product to the market. The 'duct tape' is required in such cases and the first service pack will sort out most of the issues.