Microsoft -- damned if they do, damned if they don't...

Doesn't matter what Microsoft does, people complain. Perhaps they need to work out a different way of talking to people?
Written by Matt Baxter-Reynolds, Contributor on
Sheep_and_sheep_dog (1)
Microsoft's B2B sales approach is a like herding docile sheep using a well-trained sheepdog. But that approach doesn't work in Consumerland...

I thought what Microsoft was planning to do with the Xbox One -- basically trying to move to a world where game content was delivered online rather than being dependent on a physical disc -- was pretty clever. But now we know they're not going to do it, reverting what was a bold proposition into something that's just another "meh" console.

What Microsoft was trying to do was set the the clock forward to a time when the idea of moving physical bits about on a disc could actually be considered ridiculous. In 2023, there probably won't be any physical shops left to sell the discs in!

I'm joking of course, but undoubtedly we're moving to a "digital first" world. Game discs are "digital last".


What's interesting about this is how this u-turn highlights Microsoft's inability to look like they're winning.

In Windows 8, they remove the Start button -- everyone complains.

They then announce the Start button is coming back in Windows 8.1, but not in the way that people want (i.e. it still goes through to the Metro-style Start menu) -- everyone complains.

If Microsoft were to blog today that the Start menu was coming back as well, everyone would complain.

It's obvious that this point that Microsoft can't win. But why?

Historically, Microsoft have always made products for themselves. If you run a billion dollar multinational, you need a good database. Most people would just buy one. Microsoft is in the rarified position of being able to write one.

So they did, and now other billion dollar multinationals can use it too and SQL Server is a successful (and rather good) product.

Similarly you find the same thing with Exchange and Outlook. And Visual Studio. And a whole load of other B2B products.

Of course, not every company is like Microsoft and Exchange and Outlook will work for a business with ten employees as well of a business of 100,000 employees. But, in that scenario the customer is a company, not a consumer.

When a company buys software they always do so rationally. They make a business plan, and that plan has to be traced back to some benefit to the organisation. Moreover, the people who make the decision get to impose the choice on the users. Sometimes this is totally transparent -- ten people might decide to swap out Oracle for SQL Server, and a hundred-thousand people might find themselves using different software without knowing. Or caring. Or, more importantly, complaining.

That scenario gives Microsoft a ton of freedom. If Microsoft wants to change the licensing rules around SQL Server, they only have a (relatively) small number of people complaining at them, and by extension a small number of people to convince. it's quite easy for a Microsoft account manager to sit down with a bank's CTO and smooth their troubled brow to save a million dollar license sale -- it's much harder to get a hundred-thousand people to sit down in a room with you.

But as Microsoft tries to pivot to B2C and move to delivering "devices and services", as an organisation they become fish out of water and nothing about their B2B approach works. Putting someone on a plane to save a million dollar sale is obvious. Doing the same to save a $50 sale -- not so much.

There are a bunch of problems on Consumerland. One is that consumers don't act rationally, or even in concert. People buy things because they fancy it, not because they've written and had approved a detailed business case.

I watched the online fallout after Xbox One with interest and it was almost 100% negative. Then the Xbox team u-turns and boom -- suddenly there are a thousand blog posts from people complaining that their exciting new world has been taken away. Where were those people in the first place?

It's entirely unstructured, irrational, and -- and this is Microsoft's problem -- unwinnable.

Apple has the same problem though -- look at the fallout over the UI changes in iOS 7. It's the same thing. In Consumerland, the cliché "you can't please all of the people all of the time" is drawn into sharp relief.

For me, I'm wondering whether Microsoft has a level of freedom over in Consumerland that is workable. This is an organisation that is used to doing what it wants, and that can use a huge number of very smart, very self-selected geeks to inform their product design.

Moving over to Consumerland, it's like previously they had a nice collection of docile sheep and a very good sheepdog with which to control them, but now they need to herd a bunch of anxious feral cats. You need a different approach and put that previously effective sheepdog out for retirement.

Windows 8 was like this. Windows 8 losing the Start button was very much like "dammit cats, you will be herded by this sheepdog!" Xbox One's u-turn is very much like "oh, I don't like the look of these cats! Come on, Shep, let's go home." Neither of those approaches represents a win-win to both Microsoft and the market.

The question is, what do they now? We don't want a Microsoft that can't or won't innovate in Consumerland. Both Windows 8 and Xbox One show bold innovation aimed to provide benefit to consumers at large.

The answer could be "fix the messaging". Microsoft talks to consumers like a sheepdog barks at feral cats. You need infrared goggles and acres of time to understand Microsoft's vision for anything. No consumer is ever going to care.

Consumers need it simple. Just like Apple manages to do.

What do you think? Post a comment, or talk to me on Twitter: @mbrit.

Image credit: Wikimedia

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