Microsoft: It's time to shoot the lawyers

Here they go again. Microsoft once again seems to think its lawyers are more important for its ultimate business success than, you know, customers. This one's a fire-breather from our own David Gewirtz.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

Battlestar Gallactica is famous for its use of the fake word "Frak" as a substitute for the F-word in an attempt to provide verisimilitude whilst also reaching a general television audience. As the story goes, producer Glen A. Larson reasoned that it was impossible to accurately represent hard-flying, hard-fighting pilots without any profanity and so he coined "Frak."

This, fittingly, brings us to Microsoft. There is a word (not the F-word) that is required currency when discussing Microsoft's strategy. The word I'm referring to is used to describe the part of the body you sit on, the derrière, posterior, fanny, keister, buttocks... you know, the A-word.

For example, if I were to describe something about Microsoft as a "pain in the a..," you'd not only know what I'm talking about, you'd agree. Even most Softies working at Microsoft would agree. So, for the purposes of this article, where the goal is describing Microsoft's behavior, let's use the word "Axe" like Battlestar uses "Frak." That way, we can easily say things like "pain in the axe" or "stick up their axe," and no kiddies will suffer any lifelong emotional scars.

I bring all of this up because of an article ZDNet's Ed Bott wrote about Windows 10 licensing. Here is how Ed described the article, "Microsoft's announcement of how it plans to package Windows 10 is yet another case where the lawyers and marketers turned a simple story into gibberish."

Ed is considered one of the two most widely respected Microsoft analysts, the other also being a ZDNetter: Mary Jo Foley. When one of the most widely-respected analysts focusing on your company writes, "yet another case where the lawyers and marketers turned a simple story into gibberish," someone needs to be shot.

This is not a new interpretation of Microsoft's behavior. For years, we have been writing about some of Microsoft's incredibly odd decisions.

Somewhere in Microsoft, there has to be some Senior Executive Vice President of Pain-in-the-Axe, whose job it is to determine how much of a pain in the axe something is. If a product doesn't have a pain in the axe quotient of at least 50, he issues a stream of memos declaring, "More PIA!"

You know this had to be the case with Windows 8. After all, no company in its right mind would take an incredibly popular operating system, upgrade it by completely removing the ability of the millions of people who have grown comfortable with and use it on a daily basis to, you know, actually use it -- unless there's somebody in charge of adding PIA.

There can be no other reason the company would decide to build an an otherwise altogether excellent operating system and then remove every possible obvious way of launching applications -- unless there was someone whose job was to increase PIAQ to just the right level.

There is a classic cartoon picture of company org charts, where Microsoft's departments are all drawn as pointing guns at each other. Microsoft is a strange company and while there have been indications that under Satya Nadella things have been better, as Ed just pointed out, Microsoft is still Microsoft.

It's okay. Windows is worth paying for. Windows takes a random, generic chunk of computer hardware and turns it into something wonderful and powerful. But being worth paying for does not mean we're willing to put up with legal complexity worthy of Congress.

It also does not mean we enjoy working with licensing that's a pain in the axe to decipher. Nor does it mean users and IT pros really have the time to jump through all of Microsoft's odd licensing and upgrade policies.

There is a point at which consumer and enterprise customers (not to mention all the tweakers and tinkerers and gamers and system builders out there) will lose patience (given declining PC sales, that time was about two years ago). After all, the difference between Apple's "OS X just comes with the machine" and Google's "Chrome just comes with the machine" compared to Microsoft's "let us shove a stick up your axe before you buy" becomes a substantial point of contrast.

Windows, too, sometimes just comes with the machine (like back when the early Surface devices were produced). Microsoft even then had odd policies, like you could use the copy of Office bundled on the computer everywhere but in an... wait for it... actual office. Sure, that was Windows RT and RT was an even worse debacle than the decades-infamous Microsoft Bob, but it goes to my point.

Microsoft isn't comfortable releasing products until they are a pain in the axe. Ed describes it thusly: "I blame the lawyers. Every time the discussion turns to anything close to licensing, they bury it in ... fertilizer."

I've been thinking a lot about tech companies and their core, unwritten mission statements. Yesterday, I described Apple's as: "Apple uses a combination of technology, design, anal attention to detail, and a very, very big economic stick to beat customer experience into submission."

Microsoft, too, has a core, unwritten mission statement, which I would describe as: "Microsoft builds incredibly deep, powerful, and flexible software products that -- before they see the light of day -- must be infused with a level of unnecessary inconvenience, incomprehensible restrictions, and regressive policies such that all possible joy has been removed prior to customer contact."

If Nadella wants to compete in a world with Amazon, Apple, and Google, it's probably time to shoot all the lawyers. Otherwise, there will be no joy in Redmond.

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