MS on Vista’s “Challenges”

At this point I doubt there is any new information available that would dissuade people from the notion that Vista was one very screwed up launch, so I guess Microsoft’s PR strategy momentarily shifted to stating the obvious.

The answers we got during this mid-June background conversation were brutally honest: Our source, a high-ranking Windows product manager, conceded that Microsoft botched the Vista launch. He added that the company’s biggest concern wasn’t the OS but rather the eroded faith in Microsoft’s flagship product among users of all types and experience levels.

[From Exclusive Interview: Microsoft Admits What Went Wrong with Vista, and How They Fixed It]

I don’t think Vista is that bad or fatally flawed, in fact once it’s working people seem to be okay with it. But that’s the problem, you should get more for your money than simply not being annoyed anymore… but the real problem is probably that Vista is the desktop equivalent of fighting the last war. The referenced “eroded faith in Microsoft” cuts to the very core of what Microsoft has to maintain at all costs, trust.

Apple successfully shifted the debate to “the OS is a commodity, it’s everything on top of the OS that matters” and Microsoft has never been prone to shipping useful or even tolerable applications with their OS releases. They prefer to preserve that option for upselling you a separate package later. The notion of utility has shifted from being able to faithfully support other people’s apps to value that I get out of the box and on this latter point Microsoft is far far behind Apple.

Worse for Microsoft is that their distribution strategy weakens their customer advocacy position by allowing PC manufacturers to crapify the desktop of your new machine, further adding to bloat and annoyance.

The folks in Redmond will get this sorted out and in the end it could be the catalyst that leads to major strategy shifts for the desktop business unit. As has been noted many times throughout the history of this company, they are always at their best when they have something to target.

Ironically, while Microsoft diligently works to sort itself out it may be that Apple is just passing the apex of it’s meteoric rise of recent years. MobileMe has been an acknowledged black eye, the iPhone 3G has been plagued by issues related to battery life and network performance, and there have been quality issues (MagSafe and iPod Nanos catching fire). Apple’s shine isn’t quite as glossy and this has people asking “what’s next?”.

Citizen Bill

The thing I love about this, aside from the man bites dog routine, is the fact that Bill Gates gets an urge to do something new in Windows and uses the product like a consumer would (except he can get immediate attention from support). Good for him. Of course he’s right about the usability… too bad he can’t switch to a Mac.

So I gave up and sent mail to Amir saying – where is this Moviemaker download? Does it exist?

So they told me that using the download page to download something was not something they anticipated.

[From Full text: An epic Bill Gates e-mail rant]

More on this topic (What's this?) Read more on Bill Gates at Wikinvest

What Did Happen to UI Consistency?

Although I rather like Windows Vista — I think the amount of Vista nerd rage out there is completely unwarranted — there are areas of Vista I find hugely disappointing. And for my money, nothing is more disapponting than the overall fit and finish of Vista, which is truly abysmal. It’s arguably the worst of any operating system Microsoft has ever released.

[From Coding Horror: Whatever Happened to UI Consistency?]

I am using MS Office on my Mac and one of the things that I find really irritating is that the preferences panel in Word, Powerpoint, and Excel are all dramatically different. Granted they have wildly different application functions which drives preferences but to do something as simple as set the default file format for saving documents one would think they could just adopt a single unified approach.

Here’s a rundown on the 3 main apps and setting the default file format. Interestingly, I had to do this because I was tired of people emailing me to tell me they could not “open that pptx file” and lacking any awareness of why I need the new file formats I just switched back to the old ones.

Click on the Save panel in Word “output and sharing”:

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Save button in Powerpoint, which isn’t that much different from Word, but it is a really different layout:

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And my favorite, the Compatibility panel under “Sharing and Privacy” in Excel because the Save panel doesn’t actually have save file format options. Also note that the other apps have compatibility options but in both Word and Powerpoint they are completely different options than in Excel:

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Business Physics

Microsoft’s Windows juggernaut is collapsing as it tries to support 20 years of applications and becomes more complicated by the minute. Meanwhile, Windows has outgrown hardware and customers are pondering skipping Vista to wait for Windows 7. If Windows is going to remain relevant it will need radical changes.

[From Gartner: Windows collapsing under its own weight; Radical change needed | Between the Lines | ZDNet.com]

I’ve been watching the the Microsoft Vista saga unfold with much curiosity, not because I wish them to fail or am enjoying their quagmire status at the moment, but because this is a classic innovators dilemma moment.

Windows has been fantastically successful for Microsoft to date but I don’t think anyone would seriously argue that Vista has met with external or internal expectations, was much later to market than Microsoft would have liked, and in many ways is looking like a dinosaur just before the meteor breaks into the atmosphere.

Ironically, the coolest stuff that Microsoft was planning, like WinFS, are all the things that got dropped as Vista lurched forward to a release data. A lot of people, me included, are looking at Vista and questioning why I need or want it when it requires more hardware, has an irritating security model, and doesn’t have the hardware support that XP has. In other words, if it’s just incrementally better than XP why should I care?

Apparently a lot of people are asking Microsoft to keep XP on store shelves. In a new version of old coke vs. new coke, there is a petition circulating asking Microsoft to Save XP. Currently there are 111,000 signatures on the petition.

While it’s probably easy to point to their screwed up pricing strategy and a less than compelling feature set and steep hardware requirements as primary obstacles, it is far more likely that they need to go back to the drawing board altogether and break apart the server and desktop versions, quit insisting on every DOS program going back to 1984 being compatible, and, please, focus some development resources on building out applications that are included with the OS that are actually useful.

Lastly, Microsoft is going to be toast if they continue on the path of 5 year development cycles. If an automobile manufacturer can go from a concept drawing to design to engineering to manufacturing to dealers in 18 months, why can’t a software publisher? Microsoft has created an impossible position for themselves through their strategy of bringing everything forward with them when business physics would suggest that speed and mass are incompatible attributes without a tremendous amount of horsepower, something that Microsoft, like all companies, has a finite amount of.

Microsoft gives Yahoo deadline for merger deal

I predicted this from the outset. Yahoo’s board has been negligent in their duties, fiduciary and care, in that they have sat around for 2 months hoping that something better was going to come along or that some miracle would befall the company and performance would rocket skyward. Meanwhile in the absence of any competing offer, or even serious rumor of, the company now has less leverage than when the offer was first announced. Microsoft can’t possibly allow them to simply not respond with a counter offer, else MSFT would find themselves forever impaired in any future M&A negotiations.

I think everyone understands that this is an emotional period for Yahoo given the history of the company, but unfortunately for them this company is owned by shareholders, a very large number of them outsiders, who expect a return on their investment when the opportunity presents itself.

Microsoft Corp. ratcheted up the pressure on Yahoo Inc. Saturday to accept its blockbuster takeover offer by giving the Sunnyvale Web portal three weeks to sign a deal or face a hostile acquisition bid.

[From Microsoft gives Yahoo deadline for merger deal]

Microsoft Buys Ad Inventory Management Firm Rapt

Congratulations to Tom and the crew, this has been a long time coming. Rapt has been around for the better part of a decade and has it’s roots in enterprise supply chain management (Sun was their first customer), so it’s a great case study about how a management team can repurpose one solution to another market and realize success.

[From Microsoft Buys Ad Inventory Management Firm Rapt | paidContent.org]

Microsoft (NSDQ: MSFT) has bought San Francisco-based ad a company Rapt. Terms were not disclosed. The company, which provides ad inventory management systems, will be integrated with the Atlas Publisher Suite, under Microsoft’s Advertiser and Publisher Solutions Group. Atlas became part of Microsoft when it bought aQuantive for $6 billion last year. The acquisition represents the company’s latest attempt to counter Google (NSDQ: GOOG), which saw its long-awaited purchase of DoubleClick close this week. So today’s announcement is probably not very coincidental.

Microsoft launches its alternative to Amazon’s SimpleDB

It was long thought that open source would represent the biggest challenge to traditional database vendors, but fast forward to today and the law of orthogonal technology innovation kicks into high gear as hosted databases go from a “wouldn’t that be pretty cool” to very real offerings.

Microsoft has begun signing up testers for SQL Server Data Services (SSDS), a forthcoming service that will allow customers and developers to host their data in a Microsoft-hosted database. So what is (and isn’t) SSDS, exactly? [From Microsoft launches its alternative to Amazon’s SimpleDB]

While the idea of taking down Oracle’s database business is indeed appealing to me, I doubt that will be the outcome of both SimpleDB and SDSS (seriously, why the hell can’t Microsoft acronyms as product names habit?) because for the time being the core enterprise software market is still oriented around on-premise offerings.

However, two interesting things have happened in recent years… I can’t think of a single company that has built a new product or company on a BEA stack or with an Oracle database or any other proprietary software stack. Open source technologies get their fair share of attention but if you were to poll 100 startups that have formed in recent years you would find a significant number of them are built on Amazon Web Services.

Secondly, non-relational database technologies are making inroads into the traditional enterprise market. StreamBase is one example, founded by one of the fathers of relational database technology, Mike Stonebraker, the company has been focusing on complex event processing in financial services. SimpleDB itself is another example, representing a dramatic departure from relational database systems.

These services are starting to make their way on to enterprise desktops and just like was the case with open source we can expect that enterprise osmosis will bring them into IT. Salesforce.com is also playing a role in this as well with their Force.com offering, which combines data storage with application development tools.

I haven’t seen any acceleration of Force.com in the marketplace, but this is probably less about the technology and more about the peripatetic approach to marketing it, which certainly hasn’t been helped by their identity crisis that drives the confusion around what name is it being called this month.

Give it a couple of years and I strongly believe that big enterprise IT shops and systems integrators will be enthusiastic users of these new hosted infrastructure technologies if for no other reason than the cost of building with them and maintaining them as needs scale is a fraction of on premise infrastructure.

Act 2: Buyer’s Remorse

Yesterday I wrote about the Techmeme blogger reaction to Google Sites, basically critical of it because it’s a pattern that is all too familiar: Google comes out with something new or updated and says it’s x or y and A-list blogger first reaction is to throw the company up on their shoulders and take a victory lap. There is little critical analysis.

I have been spending a lot of time in Sharepoint and when I read the various blog posts calling Sites a Sharepoint killer, it was evident to me that most of these commenters had never even seen Sharepoint, much less actually have used it. Sharepoint isn’t a wiki (which is basically what Sites is), so to compare Sites to Sharepoint on the basis of Sites superior wiki-ness begins with a false premise.

Even if Sites were competitively superior to Sharepoint on the basis of product features, that alone would not be enough.

Google’s competitive weakness with regard to Microsoft in SMB and enterprise accounts is partly due to the fact that their apps are lightweight when compared, but is more due to the account control that Microsoft holds as a key asset. Sharepoint is sold into SMB and enterprise accounts as a bundle, an up-sell to existing account, or offered as an incentive to get something else. Google simply doesn’t have the ground operation that Microsoft has, nor quite frankly the resources to build it.

What I mean by this last statement is that Google is starting to come under increased scrutiny with regard to expansion plans. As their search advertising business levels off the level of scrutiny they face will only grow, which means that spending a few billion dollars to build out a true enterprise sales and channel organization, or acquire one, which is likely to take years before returns are seen, is something they are not well positioned to do right now.

In my opinion, their original assumption was that they could flank Microsoft with the Google search appliance straight into IT and end users adopting applications as a guerilla insurgency within the enterprise. That simply hasn’t happened and probably won’t. Search appliance is doing well but those IT groups have little say in what business applications are adopted, and users as well as business decision makers have little incentive to risk going with Google when Microsoft is proven and already there.

Furthermore, the total cost of an application represents a package of associated items, the least of which is the license, so going with Google apps still means you incur support, training, and administration costs. If Google wants to really beat Microsoft in the enterprise then they are going to have to execute a full frontal assault, something they are ill-prepared to do.

I started out this post writing about the lack of critical analysis in the blogosphere, but an interesting thing tends to happen as the day goes on with announcements like this. Below is a snapshot of Techmeme later in the day when a number of bloggers started showing up with a “hold on cowboy” message that does reflect a more sober look at what Google is doing.

Maybe instead of criticizing the lack of critical analysis, I should modify that to suggest it’s a lack of immediate critical analysis that I find troubling. The problem with the blogosphere, like media, is that there is a race to be first rather than to be the most complete. TechCrunch has built a nice franchise on scoops and breaking news, and as a consequence everyone rushes to be a part of that early group.

What does all this mean? Probably not much on balance as my observation isn’t unique or earth shaking, it’s more a reflection on the traditional dynamics of media and PR, as well as human desire for recognition which is played out in the blogosphere with trackbacks and links. One thing that would be pretty cool to see is a trendline that tracks sentiment on particular issue or product launch over time to see if there is any repeating pattern.

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It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane…

Check out this snapshot of Techmeme today. As is typically the case, Google scratches it’s left ear lobe and an entire industry of bloggers kicks into gear dissecting what it means. The NYTimes claims it’s a Microsoft Sharepoint killer while Allen Stern declares they are going after pbWiki. The AP wire report, which also runs in the NYT has a somewhat different view of this, calling it a website builder. Rafe Needleman makes the observation that it’s a nice wiki even though Google never uses the word wiki. TechCrunch also calls it a wiki and quotes a Google exec calling it a “Sharepoint killer”.

So what do we know for certain: it’s a wiki and they are targeting Sharepoint. What is not said? Sharepoint is much more than a wiki, it’s probably more accurately referred to as a portal, and the wiki features are acknowledged by MSoft to be very weak. Microsoft does feature wikis from both Socialtext and Atlassian as add-ons for Sharepoint, lending credibility to the notion that they don’t see themselves as competitive in the wiki space.

Google could in fact take on Sharepoint but it’s going to take a lot more than a better wiki to do it. For starters, I would make Google Sites an OpenSocial container, which should not be too difficult given the fact that the same people were involved in both projects.

Google Apps is in total a threat but at some point Google is going to have to do something more meaningful than the bits-n-pieces act. Dan points out that Google is fighting the stigma of offering lightweight apps, but as long as they fail to release numbers such as how many companies are actually paying Google for premium apps, it’s unlikely that the market will take them seriously. Businesses are not moved by the notion of free apps because buying an application really isn’t the barrier companies face, it’s supporting users and meeting requirements.

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