Sunday, January 6, 2008

Technology for the rest of us, or why Microsoft is not winning in consumer space

My last job at Microsoft was building a consumer product - a server for an advanced household. As I wrote in my previous post, "The evil of lowered expectations", the most frustrating part of the job was killing really cool features because "consumer will not understand" them. Sometimes it got to the point of grotesqueness - some people thought that our customers don't know what a file share is.

I think this is actually a common trend at Microsoft. Almost every consumer product that ever came out of Redmond (*), from MSN to Windows Media Player looks like it was designed for complete idiots. On the other hand the best products that Microsoft shipped - Windows NT/2000/XP, Office, Visual Studio, SQL Server - are all products written for developers and enterprise customers.

It does not take a rocket scientist to see this trend and understand its roots. The people who make software at Microsoft are, well, software developers. The best products are, well, the products that they've built for themselves. They use mail, create documents and presentations, organize files, connect to the networks, etc. That's why the successful products are so successful - they know the customer very well. They ARE the customer.

On the other hand, take MSN. It is very clearly targeted to an average "soccer Mom". It looks like a tabloid. It has the tabloid content. Here's a snapshot of "Video Highlights" for today, for example:

  • 'Obama Girl' releases new video

  • Woman gives birth inside pants

  • Boy catches 551-pound shark

  • Watch the latest episode of 'Power of 10'

  • UFO spotted in Canada

It's not that Microsoft targets morons with its consumer products by design. It just subconsciously equates non-technical users with morons. This happens because most Microsoft engineers themselves ARE very technical of course, and they don't know very much about non-technical users. And because they don't know very much about them, they tend to go by the lowest common denominator, because they think that if a product can be used by an idiot, it can be used by a smart person as well. While technically it is true, it is also often the case that a smart person wouldn't want to use the product designed for a cretin.

Here's the way I see the market in this respect.

The reason Apple is so successful in the market in which Microsoft failed so consistently is because they recognize that "non-technical users != idiots". They CAN learn to use technology, IF the technology is presented in a package that is (1) useful, and either (2) polished, or, (3) essential. Dumbing down is not really required.

It's not all that much different from an automotive market. Cars are complex machinery, and operating them is probably harder than operating computers. There are car enthusiasts, but vast majority of the people are not. I, for one, do not know what either of my two cars look like under the hood, and have no desire to learn. They nevertheless expend non-trivial amount of time learning how to operate the car and the rules of the road.

They also spend a lot of money on hardware. Car manufacturers understand this and most of the models they build are designed for people who are not car enthusiasts.

Microsoft failure to differentiate people who are not technical enthusiasts costs company exorbitant amounts of money. I would say that the whole MSN project is a big failure because the people who it could attract (the same people who buy tabloids in supermarkets) do not spend much money online, so providing a service that is backed by advertising for them is a losing proposition. A $10B losing proposition :-(.

But wait, there's more. When Vista was still "Longhorn", it was a product for developers. It was supposed to be one of the biggest programming paradigm shifts in the history of Windows - from C-centric interfaces to .NET, from 2d graphics to 3d, from file systems to databases. It was to be an incredibly innovative product.

Then about midway through the project it turned out that revolutions are messy, bloody, and, most importantly, tend to run way behind the schedule. So Vista was refocused to compete with Apple in the UI arena.

Again, the hypothesis was that users care more about pretty looks vs. substance (performance, stability, functionality). I. e, that the users are, well, stupid. We have not yet seen the full cost of this one, but it would probably be on the order of $10B as well.

Morale of the story - know thy customers. Ideally, be them!


(*) There are two exceptions that just affirm the rule. I think that both Zune and Xbox are excellent consumer products. However, Xbox is clearly built for a hardcore gamer (its causal game lineup is absolutely awful). A lot of Microsoft employees, and certainly many if not most people who worked on Xbox are hardcore gamers. And I know that people who designed Zune ARE digital media enthusiasts. So successful consumer products can be done at Microsoft. It just happens when people build them for themselves.


dzembu said...

XBOX is a great product ( or Helo is a cool game?) ? Well, some people replaced h/w several times: it was obviose screw up and for game console that was copied by MS from Sony and others ( Nintendo ?) what kind of "design" you are talking about ? Like what you need from game console ? Put CD in and play. So, XBOX probably OK product ( copy cat one) but it is ugly as hell , big, hot and noisy. I just can not put it next to Sony PS2 that is very old, but small and nice.

Zune ? Yes. That is iPod copy. Not yet a good one. Idea behind ? Connect you to MS version of iTunes ( that sux much more then iTunes - platform wise ) Will let let me do what I as user want ? NOPE. I doubt developers liked use DRM, but will Zune be open like Archos ? Nope. NEVER.

So, probably XBOX and Zune was OK copy of PS and iPod with added MS flavor ;-) But ... not perfect. That may be improved so with time and most likly will.

Vista failed miserably compare to OS X: here you are right again.

I do not agree with one thing: designed for idiots. How that made Vista so slow ? Like take iPhone: it is joy to use and you do not have to read any documentation. ( Yes, Exchange sync is not implemeneted, but I would blame MS for that again) Even with all these bugs iPhone surly have I can not even compare it with "smart phone" that I had before.

Sergey Solyanik said...

Xbox is no more a copycat of Sony than Sony is a copycat of Nintendo - they are both game players, and that's where the similarity ends.

They even serve different markets - Sony is much more of a casual gaming device than Xbox. Xbox is designed strictly for hardcore gamers.

BTW, the first Xbox was a very innovative idea - let's take commodity PC architecture and hardware and see what we can do with it.

Similarly the only thing that's common between Zune and iPod is that they both play music. If Zune is a copycat for anything, it's an iRiver, not the iPod which didn't get a combination of a decent screen and decent storage to this day.

WRT iPhone - I agree that it's a wildly successful consumer product. I will buy it when it can access my mail at home. But it's unfair to compare the ugliest, stupidest Windows Mobile phone that you've got at Tiger for $99 without the contract (the price alone should tell you that is is far, far not the best Windows device), and for which you didn't even have the data plan with an iPhone that will cost you, incrementally, over a $1k with its 2 year contract...

You get what you're paying for in this instance.

Sergey Solyanik said...

Oh, yeah, and as far as Vista failing compared to OS X - that would be true if OS X started capturing PC market share like crazy. But this is not happening, and not even forecast:

The reality is while Apple knows how to capture consumers, it knows nothing, and never will, about corporate customers, or developers. And it's corporate sales, not consumers, that provide bulk of the profits in the PC market.