Will Microsoft ever get the consumer?

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Hold on tight folks, this is going to be a long ride!

A couple of days have passed since Microsoft made the ill fated announcement removing Drive Extender Technology from Windows Home Server “VAIL” under the guise of “customer feedback” The reality however, clearly differs in that they meant the corporate customers and not the average consumers to whom WHS was meant for. From Paul Thurrott

Because mainstream Windows Server products are more important to the company and its partners (emphasis mine) Microsoft decided to axe Drive Extender. In a briefing last month, the software giant explained to me that the decision was final, and that Drive Extender would not be reappearing in the future.

The reaction from the average users who have deployed and championed the OS has been overwhelmingly negative with the WHS connect site logging over 650 comments and 2500 votes in favor of bringing the feature back.  Microsoft for their part have not responded other than a  ridiculous follow up post that clarified nothing. If we go by Mr. Thurrott’s statement, the goose is cooked and MS will just hide and hope that all this goes away.

Several months back, I came across this article titled “Microsoft: Stop the shiny object syndrome” by Scott Barnes aka MossyBlog, a former Silverlight/WPF program manager at Microsoft which hit on some misgivings I had about the company.  I intended to write an article on how the story related  to what I saw on some of their other offerings but never got around to it until now.

WHS DET is/was a forward looking technology that thought of and catered to the average consumers need for easy backup and pain free expansion of storage without the hassle and expense of RAID. Read the guiding principles for DET making the case against RAID and compare them to WHS competing offering from Drobo, highlighting their BeyondRaid Technology. They are essential trying to solve the same problem RAID creates when deployed in the home environment. So what does Microsoft do?  They capitulate to their partners and tell us that they will offer RAID solutions from these third parties even though they fully know, “RAID sucks as the basis for a consumer storage product”  Drobo is now shrewdly offering a $100 discount to users looking to migrate from WHS to Drobo FS.

The sad aspect about this whole debacle is watching Microsoft willingly cede an area in the home user space, in which they are in the forefront with the potential of earning billions of dollars in revenue if marketed (and have the features just right. They have also a lost a lot of goodwill and created distrust among their most loyal fans, something that will take a long time, if ever to rebuild. To even go further, users have been requesting the inclusion of Windows Media Center and TV tuner support for years only to fall on deaf ears at Microsoft. Those feature could provide the most compelling central storage, backup and media streaming solution not available anywhere else. Add an option for an integrated, seamless online backup for important folders to SkyDrive (even if it is has to be a paid option) and Microsoft would be rolling in dough.

Lets move on to some other products in the consumer space where Microsoft initially had the lead, but somehow “skillfully” managed to lose their advantage through a series of mismanagement, lack of vision and infighting.  We all know about Windows Mobile, a powerful smartphone OS that Microsoft left to languish until they were forced to reset with WP7 after Apple and Google ate their lunch with the IOS and Android. But even with the new OS, they still can’t seem to get the expansion storage problems straightened out, something they should have done way before launch. In fact, the knowledge that the iPhone had 16 and 32 GB versions while Android allowed expandable storage should been reciprocated by MS requiring the OEMS to have similar versions for their devices at launch.

I may be in the minority but  I still believe that all WP7 phones should have come with the Zune connector at the bottom of all devices instead of the varied placement of the micro-usb port from device to device making it impossible for 3rd parties to create accessories to expand the use of the devices. I know all the WP7 phones are not of the same width but the difference is not that great for a manufacturer to build a dock that will cover the whole range. The micro-usb port would still be required at least for charging and synching to the computer but then its placement would not matter that much.

The second product that comes to mind to mind is Windows Media Center. This product even at this time still beats Google TV and Apple TV  when it comes to aesthetics and ease of use IMHO with the added advantage of being able to add TV tuners, Cable cards and record the OTA shows to the hard drive and then sync them to compatible portable devices for on the go consumption. It took Microsoft until this year to finally extract WMC from obscurity inside Windows Seven and Vista to a standalone Windows Media Center Embedded OS. Check out the Acer Revo 2, this device outclasses the Google TV and Apple TV booth in looks and features. Now if Microsoft only then made making apps for WMC easier buy providing an SDK and free tools like a Visual Studio and Expression Blend for WMC like they do for WP7. A common marketplace for app discovery and maybe cross compatibility with Xbox Silverlight applications would be the icing on the cake. With most consumers owning more than one television the WMC boxes eliminates the need for having to purchases multiple Xboxes and have the also have the advantage of having Blu-ray drives which the consoles do not support. Unfortunately, all we hear are stories about Boxee, Roku, Vudu, the Apple TV and now Google TV coming to more and more sets with the latest being Toshiba and Vizio reported to showcase their wares at CES 2011. Meanwhile, a great option, Windows Media Center, languishes in obscurity.

I could go on and on about their fumbling with the Zune HD (although with the news of the device missing on the Zune.net website is anyone’s guess) or Windows tablets needing to run a version of WP7  rather than a fully fledged Windows 7 OS but I’ll save that for another day.

What annoys me the most is how Microsoft addresses this issues via “dry” and vague blog posts or in interviews that usually are just as obscure or heavily restricted with select journalists. I would love for Microsoft to appoint a person like the President has a press secretary who can quickly address  users questions (as it relates to the overall platform strategy in the various divisions) as they arise and for the CEO, Steve Ballmer, to articulate a cohesive strategy and roadmap with some details on the time lines of what they have coming in the consumer space and no, I don’t want to hear how many copies of Windows 7 or Office 2010 have been sold.

I now share Mr. Barnes sentiments when he says

Microsoft really needs to knock it off, its getting somewhat annoying for the customer base. At first I just ignored this overall effect as well I was like many part of the said machine. Now being on the outside of Microsoft and hanging out with the “customers” and “developers” I can see the negative effects it has on the perception of Microsoft today first hand.

As I read through the commentary on the WHS connect site, I get the sense that Microsoft, in one fell swoop, has vaporized most if not all goodwill with their most ardent followers however small or unprofitable they maybe. Problem is these guys are the loyal foot soldiers who fix their friends and relatives computer problems and exert a huge influence among their social circle as to which products to purchase. These consumers then end up influencing what products their places of work deploy just like the iPhone moved from the consumer space into the enterprise. Lose this crowd and chances of gaining any traction in that arena becomes very difficult to pry them away from Apple or Google. To continue with Mr. Barnes

I almost want to grab Steve Ballmer and make him sit down in frontline cubicles incognito – like that show where boss’s go undercover in their companies – and get him to see the negative impacts these poorly executed marketing strategies are having.

The shining exception so far that remains uninfected by this virus seems to be the Xbox division with compelling products like the Kinect and savvy marketing. I hope the rest of the consumer division can tap into some of their mojo.

I never thought the day would come when I would say this but to paraphrase Mr. Barnes one last time,  from now on “I will approach every announcement with a roll of the eyes and an element of contempt and cynicism”  I went today as far as looking into the Apple Time Capsule as an alternative to WHS!

I still love Windows Phone 7 and especially the Metro UI, which Mr. Barnes doesn’t and believe that it will be a major player that has a good chance of surpassing the iPhone, Android and RIM. The WP7 team fortunately seems to be following in the footsteps of the Xbox team and that’s a good thing. It is now just harder to whole heartedly recommend their other consumer products not knowing what crazy move Microsoft may pull six months or a year from now.

To all our American readers, Happy Thanksgiving and a safe Black Friday shopping.

More about the topics: drobo, tablet, windows home server, windows media center, windows phone 7, zune hd

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