Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Monday 31/07/2006 You've seen the YouTube clip. You've read the commentary.
Written by Rupert Goodwins, Contributor

Monday 31/07/2006

You've seen the YouTube clip. You've read the commentary. You've even bought the T-shirt. And your aunt has laughed her head off. Microsoft, never a company lacking in hubris, decided to mock the gods of demo and committed the number one sin — showing off speech recognition to an important audience.

Lesson one: never show off speech recognition to an important audience. It never works. This has been an accepted fact of life since 1984, when Apricot launched its stylish, innovative and futile Portable to a chortling world. That had speech recognition: it didn't work. Microsoft shows no sign of believing this lesson, as it says it's fixed the bugs and will be showing off Vista speech recognition again soon. It may even be right — but a hundred flawless exhibitions of virtuoso word capture won't undo the damage.

Lesson two: be honest about what happened. Ten out of 10 for Microsoft here, as the developers in charge of the speech components swiftly coughed to the problem (at least, we think they coughed. Vista reported the sound as "Rough dogs delete my aunt"). Rob Chambers and Larry Osterman dish the dirt: part of the sound system cranked up the gain on the microphone during the silence between words to the point where the words themselves distorted. There was code to prevent that happening, but sometimes it didn't work.

There's still a good question as to why they chose to demonstrate a system with a known intermittent bug — especially since a later build was available with the problem fixed — but I've been there, I've convinced myself that because something worked three times in a row in private it'd be fine that one more time in public. I've enjoyed the full facial albumen. They have my sympathy.

Lesson three: have a word with your PR company. While Microsoft has learned lesson two, its PR company, Waggener Edstrom, is still living in the past. The TV presenter on the video clip was happy to report that Microsoft "was not happy we showed you that video, and blames ambient noise for the failure. But as you can hear, it was quiet until the product didn't work and everyone started laughing. Live television is rough. Welcome to our world". Ho ho. But of course, it wasn't Microsoft being unhappy, it was WaggEd trying to spin the story. We've been on the end of that spin machine, and it's counter-productive. Perhaps it used to work with the non-technical media, but no more — after all this time, the huge gap between the neo-Stalinist stance of Microsoft Official Reality and what people can see for themselves has percolated into the noodle of the least critical observer.

Microsoft knows this in its heart. That's why is why Rob Chambers and Larry Osterman are free to tell the truth and in so doing help to heal the decades of disdain in which the company has held its customers. Even Steve Ballmer feels able to say where the Vista development effort went wrong. WaggEd, bless it, is still flying over the jungle blasting propaganda from its helicopters. It looks foolish. It makes its client look foolish. It's out of touch.

You don't want that in your PR company. Perhaps someone in Microsoft could recognise this.

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