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When people ask me what's the stupidest thing Microsoft ever did with Windows, I have an easy answer.
I even used that word back in June 2006, when I wrote Microsoft presses the Stupid button:
When you’re the Evil Empire, it’s only natural to get a bad rap for everything you do. Microsoft gets bad-mouthed a hundred times a week for things that would be perfectly acceptable coming from anyone else. Given that level of criticism, it’s easy to ignore the times when they’re just completely, egregiously wrong.
The uproar over Microsoft’s new Windows Genuine Advantage authentication software, which is now being pushed onto Windows users’ machines via Windows Update, is one of those occasions. Someone at Microsoft just pushed the Stupid button. And things aren’t going to get better until they stop pushing it.
But over the next two years, they made it worse, with activation servers that failed and unfairly branded innocent Windows users as software pirates. The program hits its low point, not surprisingly, in Windows Vista, when Microsoft released its toughest version yet:
Microsoft denies that this is a "kill switch" for Windows Vista ... Technically, they're right, I suppose. Switching a PC into a degraded functionality where all you can do is browse the Internet doesn't kill it; but it's arguably a near-death experience.
I long ago lost count of the number of words I wrote about Windows Genuine Advantage and product activation, but I don't regret a single one of them. I know they made a difference. Microsoft removed the "kill switch" in Windows Vista Service Pack 1, and in Windows 7 the activation experience seems to finally work.
For as long as Microsoft has made operating systems, it has had a complicated relationship with its customers.You might think of yourself as a Microsoft customers, but roughly 90% of all copies of Windows are sold by PC manufacturers, who in turn resell those machines to end users like you and me.
That creates the potential for a conflict if the interests of the PC makers aren't in alignment with the needs of the customers who will eventually buy those PCs. And there is no better example than the mess Microsoft made when it was getting ready to launch Windows Vista.
The new, whizzy Aero graphics in Vista demanded up-to-date hardware. But Intel was still selling the older 915 graphics chipset, which wasn't up to the challenge, and PC makers like Sony and Dell were continuing to design notebooks built around those chipsets. Microsoft initially wrote specs that would have disqualified those PCs from earning a Vista logo. Intel demanded that Microsoft bend the rules, and Microsoft eventually caved.
Microsoft created a new logo that defined these graphically challenged PCs as "Designed for Windows XP / Vista Capable." In its public pronouncements, executives danced around the limitations: "PCs with the Windows Vista Capable logo can run the core experiences of Windows Vista," said Microsoft's Will Poole at the Windows Hardware Engineering Conference in 2006.
And that's when the lawsuits began.
The exhibits that came out during discovery were particularly embarrassing. The worst was an e-mail from Jim Allchin, who said, "I believe we are going to be misleading customers with the Capable program." According to CNET's Ina Fried, he was described as "apoplectic" over the decision.
Several years later, I was offered an opportunity to give Microsoft some free advice on how to fight Vista criticism. "We're sorry" is a good start, I said.
"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."
It’s worth noting that Steven Sinofsky, who’s now in charge of the Windows development effort, was harshly critical of the decision at the time. All of the executives who were named in the most damning bits of evidence have left Microsoft. I don't think that's a coincidence.
Microsoft took a lot of well-deserved abuse for its many versions of Windows Vista. The top consumer version, Vista Ultimate, had an insanely high price tag that I called "price gouging" after looking at what was in it.
The most comically misguided addition to Vista Ultimate was a feature called Windows Ultimate Extras. A separate Control Panel icon promised "cutting-edge programs … available only through Windows Ultimate Extras" along with "innovative services" and "tips and tricks … to get the most out of Windows Vista Ultimate Edition."
At the time, I was skeptical:
Through the years, Microsoft has been pretty damn smart about its product marketing, but they’ve screwed this one up completely. ... It’s hard to imagine what sort of goodies they can include in the Ultimate Extras box that will make this package irresistible and worth the extra cost.
Ultimately (heh), Microsoft delivered four Ultimate Extras with the shipping version of Vista, but that was it. And to add insult to injury, Microsoft eventually killed off some of those add-ons:
I’m sure the Windows 7 team cringes every time they’re reminded of the puffery and promises their predecessors made about what turned out to be an Ultimate Embarrassment. Over the past few years, Microsoft has tried to stuff those references to “cutting-edge programs [and] innovative services” down the memory hole. Indeed, they’ve shut down the Secure Online Key Backup service that was one of the signature Ultimate Extras, and the handful of games that made it to Windows Update don’t survive an upgrade to Windows 7. (Ouch.)
Microsoft downplayed the Ultimate edition in Windows 7. If they're smart, they'll get rid of the SKU completely for Windows 8.