"Microsoft declined requests for comment"; that's your problem right there

Microsoft is fed up of being told it's dead, dying, uncool, undead or whatever other insult you have in mind. Communications chief Frank Shaw started a #notdeadyet Twitter hashtag back in October to rebut some of the more egregious brickbats in articles and with kneejerk articles like this interview, you can't blame him.

Microsoft is fed up of being told it's dead, dying, uncool, undead or whatever other insult you have in mind. Communications chief Frank Shaw started a #notdeadyet Twitter hashtag back in October to rebut some of the more egregious brickbats in articles and with kneejerk articles like this interview, you can't blame him. Siminoff has some interesting views on some tech companies; pointing out the value of the properties Yahoo has in China is acute, but then he thinks RIM is toast because it's doing better in the rest of the world than in North America. Wait, isn't RIM still the top smartphone company in North America? Doesn't it go RIM 37%, Apple 24%, Android 21%?

But then you get thoughtful and balanced pieces on the state of Microsoft like the snarkily titled but also considered and informative Cracked Windows story on HuffPo which is less about digging in the knife and more about telling it how it is. Google and Apple and tablets and search and (pace the strong-out-of-the-gate-if-only-there-were-more-units-available-to-sell Windows Phone 7) mobile; these are areas where Microsoft has had problems. Or as Ray Ozzie put it in a memo that I increasingly think is a warning to Microsoft to replace him with a thought leader, not right now but before they stagnate again; "their execution has surpassed our own in mobile experiences, in the seamless fusion of hardware and software and services, and in social networking and myriad new forms of internet-centric social interaction". Everyone at Microsoft who is smart, honest and working on things that make Microsoft relevant knows this (even if they are understandably tired of being beaten up about it and beaten over the head with it).

But in the middle of that Huffington piece is the line "Microsoft declined requests for comment". Now I know it's a busy time of year (we still need to sort out CES appointments, fit in a week's work, go to the last Christmas parties and buy some last-minute presents - Microsoft folk have to do all that and fit in their end of year review too). I know it's hard to find something else to say about a topic that has, frankly, been done to death. Microsoft probably doesn't want to roll out a senior executive to get beaten up or to lend weight to a negative story. And I know absolutely nothing about the conditions under which this story was written or this comment solicited. But one of the most important things for Microsoft - right up there with making awesome products and advertising them well (and not making terrible products or destroying the value in a great product and making it irrelevant) - is being in the conversation.

Even before Windows 7, the thing that has transformed many people's view of Microsoft over the last few years has been the Microsoft blogs and the Channel 9 site (plus spinoffs). Suddenly you could get technical information and have a discussion with the people working on the product you use every day - and they turned out to be real people, not some heartless robot who was trying to ruin your day by carelessly making your system crash. The 'softies in the trenches got in the conversation with people who might well have an axe to grind as well as a point to make - and I think those conversations have been hugely valuable to both sides. Steve Clayton's new Next at Microsoft blog is aiming to be a conversation with stories not just about what Microsoft is doing that's cool, but about who Microsoft is. Conversations - good conversations - make connections.

Some connections Microsoft needs. The teams at Microsoft working on social media tools are in Seattle rather than in silicon valley and Microsoft isn't on the list of social media developers you think of right off - and as a result they sometimes complain about feeling left out of conversations about social media (even though they have so many millions and billions of users logging in and sharing photos and sending messages and oh, you know, being social). Other Microsoft teams have the opposite problem; they get asked to be part of trivial conversations or to comment on products they won't want to discuss until they're a lot closer to being ready (a policy that helped make the reception of Windows 7 a huge success). A balance has to be struck and there are conversations to avoid.

Sometimes letting Microsoft folk talk directly to end users can seem like a bad idea, particularly if you look at the comment threads from the recent Hotmail session on Reddit. The standard question that Microsoft asks customers who are asking for a feature that the Microsoft team doesn't have on its radar is 'tell me why that's important to you'. To a Reddit user, asking why they want IMAP doesn't say 'it's unlikely but I'm honestly listening' - it says 'I have no idea who you are or what you care about'. But the answer there isn't to stop the Hotmail team talking on Reddit; it's to take along someone who knows the Reddit audience, have them come up with the worst questions the Reddit audience is likely to ask and work out a good answer with the team in advance, and make sure that answer still works on the ground. Without that, you don't have a conversation - you have a spectator sport.

But then there are thoughtful discussions like the Quora page that asks why it seems like Microsoft has stopped innovating. Several ex-Microsoft have showed up to talk about their experience of innovation at Microsoft (good and bad) but only one current 'softie has even joined the discussion.

I'm not asking for Microsoft to astroturf discussions about a decline they've worked hard to avoid, and I'd always rather a product team spent their time building the product than talking about Microsoft. But any time there's a serious and thoughtful piece about Microsoft's ups and downs and there's no thought-provoking comment from Microsoft in there, I think they've missed a trick.

Mary