Microsoft's baffling 'multiple personality disorder'

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.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

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.

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