I am, to be honest, a bit fed up with talking about Start button and I'm sure you are too. But for me, it's taken a meaning greater than just something to do with the user interface. It's become symbolic of a problem that Microsoft doesn't seem to understand — enterprises and consumers experience software procurement in very different ways.
And that's a problem...
Imagine it's 2007 and you're the CTO of a company with 1,000 users. A member of your staff has presented you with a business case to move to Office 2007. You know the toolbar is going away and being replaced with the ribbon.
You also know that users aren't going to like the change, but you're doing things sensibly — you have a training plan in place, the helpdesk is geared up to support the shift.
You sign the PO, and you ask your staff to roll out Office 2007 with its new ribbon interface.
When you're in this position, you've irritated and caused some discomfort to 1,000 of your users. Human beings, as we know, don't like change, and you've just made change happen. You're in for a few weeks of flak. If you're not being entirely mature about it, that's a good period to schedule a vacation, or a few early afternoons out playing golf, or a more rigourous policy with regards to keeping your office door shut.
What's happened here is that you've "moved the cheese." People are used to seeing and using toolbars — after the upgrade, those toolbars have gone away and been replaced. The result? Cross users reacting angrily to imposed change.
But, given time, everything eventually goes back to normal. People in enterprises use the tools they're given and tend to adapt to change reasonably smoothly. Part of this is, I'm afraid, is because people don't care. If you roll out Dynamics CRM, for instance, you're hardly likely to get picketed by a cohort of users that demand you also roll out Salesforce.
Put simply, people get used to the new place where the cheese is kept.
Importantly, if the users are irritated at anyone, the irritation will be focused on the IT team that has mucked everything up, not on the Microsoft's engineers who developed the new ribbon.
More importantly, those users don't have any real power over whether to continue to buy Microsoft software or not. It remains the CTOs decision.
Over in Consumerland, the situation is very different.
Technologists rarely seem to understand that non-technologists feel entirely differently about technology than they do. A technologist tends to feel about computer systems under their control as if they are tools. They understand those tools, they have relationships with them, they know how they work. If they are broken, they can fix them.
A non-technologist doesn't see a computer as a tool in the same way. If a non-technologist's computer "breaks" (and this can be anything from an actual breakdown to a window being one size one day and smaller the next), that user will get stuck. We've all seen perfectly competent users totally bamboozled by what seems to us to be the most simple thing.
Windows 8 is so wholly different from Windows 7 that, to a non-technologist, it doesn't feel like improvement, enhancement, or evolution. The only thing that it feels is broken.
And because the non-technologist has done this to himself — i.e. the change is self-inflicted, coupled with the fact that he doesn't have any support to fall back on — rather than adapting to the change smoothly as he would in a "use this at work because your boss says you have to," he simply gets irritated and upset with the fate that's befallen him.
To a non-technologist, Windows 8 moves the cheese so far, it might as well be stapled to the side of Voyager 1 as it hurtles out into deep space. A typical non-technologist user has virtually no chance of retreiving the cheese.
Microsoft is used to the enterprise space being able to move the cheese because they are dealing, generally, with a customer base that is made up mostly of technologists. Moreover, those technologists are usually acting rationally, basing decisions on business cases that have to be scrutinised before they are signed off on.
A CTO will not make a judgement whether to roll out a new CRM on Oracle or SQL Server without knowing what those words actually mean.
In Consumerland, moving the cheese results in one of two things: either irritated customers who are annoyed with you but who continue to be your customers, or irritated customers who are annoyed with you and who subsequently stop being your customers.
This is the thing that worries me most about Microsoft's strategy at the moment. Do they actually understand that moving the cheese of a non-technologist consumer isn't a good idea?
Because it seems to me that they know in the enterprise space, moving the cheese around appears to be a very good idea. This strategy of cheese translocation seems to have worked out very well for them for the past 20 years. It's the ability to be brave around change that's got them to a point where they have a stable of world-beating products.
That thing Microsoft does where it "takes three versions to get it right" is not accidental. The process is designed like that, and it's all about careful execution of change. They move the cheese around into the correct final position in full view within the market itself, as opposed to delivering it to the market in the right place the first time around.
But, that strategy is just plain stupid in the consumer market because all you're doing to customers is turning them from neutral-slash-positive into "angry." How hard is it to convince someone who thinks, "I bought Windows 8 and I hated it!" into buying a Mac? It's a great deal easier than someone who thinks, "I like my Windows 7 laptop!"
I've been trying to think of examples of non-technology brands that behave like this in the consumer space. The only one that I can think of, which I fear shows a certain lack of imagination, is New Coke — and we all know how that ended.
Reintroducing the Start menu to Windows Blue would reduce some of the distance that the cheese has moved for non-technologists coming to the operating system from Windows 7. But that cuts both ways — Microsoft can't do that without a tacit admission that Windows 8 is in fact a sister operating system of Windows Vista. That would hurt their stock price, and nullify any of the Windows 8 marketing expenses incurred thus far.
We all know that's not going to happen.
What I really need to see from Microsoft is some kind of evidence that they know that over in Consumerland, if you want to move the cheese, it has to be done carefully.
People do not like change.
What do you think? Post a comment, or talk to me on Twitter: @mbrit.