Why do we (love to) hate Microsoft?

Tired of the endless 'but what have you done for us lately?' comments that follow Microsoft's every move, no matter how successful, communications head Frank Shaw rounded up some fun statistics to underline the fact that Microsoft is still the heart of the PC industry and the PC industry is still the heart of mainstream computing.

Tired of the endless 'but what have you done for us lately?' comments that follow Microsoft's every move, no matter how successful, communications head Frank Shaw rounded up some fun statistics to underline the fact that Microsoft is still the heart of the PC industry and the PC industry is still the heart of mainstream computing. My personal favourite is the snide but true comment that Salesforce's CEO Marc Benioff can't make it through a single public announcement without mentioning Microsoft; Microsoft might be late to the cloud (if you can be late to a technology that's still nascent) but it's growing faster than rivals.

Shaw's point is partly that Apple (and to a certain extent Google) get way more publicity and respect than their comparative sales figures actually deserve, partly that when Microsoft does well in a sector it's dismissed as stodgy and boring and mostly that hey, Microsoft is doing well and doesn't need to feel defensive.

You can debate individual statistics (I've seen Linux fans suggesting that it's unfair to count all those boring office servers that actually run businesses when it's Apache Web servers that really matter) but most of the negative reactions I've seen to the figures tend to either centre around claims that Microsoft doesn't innovate or just express the general 'Microsoft? Meh' response that Shaw is trying to address.

Does Microsoft innovate? I’d say yes - but in my view the problem is that it doesn't always follow through. Tablet PCs did more than the iPad years ago; but they weren't cheap, lightweight or advertised as something everybody wanted. Windows Mobile was the first smartphone that took your address book out of your mail client and put it in your hand wherever you were and internal wrangling and mismanagement threw away market share like beads at Mardi Gras. Microsoft Research developed the equivalent of Photoshop's content-aware fill and put it in Microsoft Picture It; when Microsoft's photo apps died the death the feature languished for years (until the latest version showed up in Office 2010 and the new Live Essentials Photo Gallery).

Good ideas that get out keep their rough edges for far too long; Mesh may be finally emerging as a sync tool, but the mobile side seems to have vanished and when you sync an Office file to Skydrive it isn't a live link to the Office Web apps. Office 2010 is closer than ever to being a unified suite - but Publisher lacks most of the great image tools that are in PowerPoint (even Excel has the new image tools - how is it more important to remove the background of a photo in a spreadsheet than in a Publisher document?) and OneNote's spell check feature is years behind the other apps. It's all about attention to detail (and, yes, resources - when I complain about these kind of issues someone at Microsoft will always remind me that they don't have infinite resources and they have to choose what to concentrate on, which is absolutely true and still doesn't solve the problem).

And then there's the fact that it just isn't fashionable to like Microsoft.

Windows 7 generated a burst of enthusiasm, but iPad and Android and the future of a tiny but sexy part of the computing market seems to have overshadowed that. The key features of the key Office apps are on the Web for free and I think the fact that we hear so little about them says something about how the market isn’t actually ready for sophisticated Web apps (or maybe useful is intrinsically less interesting than underpowered but novel). Hotmail wipes the floor with Gmail in terms of user numbers and - apart from two features (rule-based forwarding and nested sub-folders) - does everything and more that Gmail does, and without mining your email stream for Google's machine learning, but it has the reputation of its distant ancestor. IE9 is the exception; implementing standards and using hardware acceleration to do it screamingly fast and remind you why it is you actually want a PC rather than a big phone in the first place. But even then there's the spectre of IE 6 and Windows XP and the old mistakes that will not die.

Microsoft has history. Not just copies of a nine-year-old OS that you can still get on a new PC; not just jokes about the Clippy feature that wouldn't have popped up to interrupt you in Office any time in the last seven years. Microsoft is still paying for the bad old days of arrogance and dubious business practices. I think they're the bad old days - I spend a lot of time talking to Microsoft insiders, partners and competitors and the attitudes I see have changed, inside and out. The level of supervision that the DoJ has over Microsoft's relationships with top OEMs is unparalleled. When the Vista-era Windows president Will Poole broke an agreement with HP to do Intel a favour, Steve Ballmer sent in Steven Sinofsky to clean house and the perpetrators quietly left the company. If I want to experience old-fashioned Microsoft-style arrogance today I go to Google IO and it's Google, Apple and Intel who are learning that with dominance comes scrutiny. But there are still plenty of people who think Microsoft is a wolf with a fluffy lambskin coat, an evil empire, automatically malicious, careless and autocratic - and with assumptions like that, evidence doesn't always matter.

The truth is Microsoft is a business (as are Google and Apple and Opera and Salesforce and Red Hat and most of the players in this game). It's a very pragmatic business and that's why it's survived this long, in the face of competition and its own mistakes. Neither cloud nor open source - nor any other single technology development - is a universal panacea; commercial software companies like Microsoft (and Apple ) and on-premise and client apps are going to be around for a long time and Microsoft's best response to any challenge will always be to make its own products better and get people excited about them.

Getting their light out from under the bushel of assumptions is a good start - and the open communication between Microsoft employees and developers and consumers through the hundreds of Microsoft blogs has been a big help - but the message of Microsoft's success is oddly hard to communicate.

What would Microsoft need to do and say to you for you to be happy to call yourself a fan?



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