I’m an Enterprise guy. In the mid-70s I set a career goal of dethroning IBM from its then total dominance of the enterprise computing space. By the end of the 80s I needed a new goal, and it’s always been around furthering the use of computing in the Enterprise. So I like to think, and have plenty of evidence to support, that I know enterprise computing as well as anyone on the planet. But outside of being a consumer, and applying common sense and observation, I claim no particular expertise in bringing technology to consumers. So I tend to give the so-called experts in the consumer area the benefit of the doubt when they claim some behavior that violates my sensibilities. But I’ve concluded they are wrong. Horribly wrong.
In the Enterprise space we realized something decades ago: Customers don’t so much buy your existing product, they BUY-IN to your strategy. Your product can have numerous weaknesses and even look bad against the competition in some critical areas, but as long as the CIO and other key decision makers like where you are going they will still choose you. And so we always have been willing to tell our customers, often but not always under NDA, where we were going. It worked. They bought.
But the consumer experts, using Apple as an example of a successful strategy, have argued that you don’t say anything until shortly before shipping. There are good reasons for this. You want maximum press coverage very close to availability. You want to avoid the Osborne Effect. You want to avoid over-promising and under-delivering. A CIO might understand that you had to change plans because of strategy changes, technology shifts, or just engineering expediency. Consumers aren’t so forgiving. Once you tell them about something they aren’t very tolerant of a failure to deliver. Basically, in the consumer realm “shock and awe” rules.
Problem number one with “shock and awe” is that it doesn’t work when you need developers and other partners to succeed. Apple doesn’t say anything about iPhone x more than days before availability, but it does release the SDK for the new version of IOS months in advance. Microsoft did this for Windows Phone 7.0 and 7.5, but for Windows Phone 8 it didn’t release the SDK in advance. So four months after Windows Phone 8 devices started shipping we still see very few apps that take advantage of new features. That’s a FAIL Microsoft.
The latest catch-phrase being attributed to the Windows Phone team is “shut up and ship”. Really? That’s what you did for Windows Phone 8 and it didn’t work. You alienated developers. You alienated power users. You alienated the faithful. You alienated the influencers. And you are continuing down that path. True the volume of buyers doesn’t care a lot about these things. But they take their cue from those that do.
Of course this doesn’t just apply to the Windows Phone team, but to Windows as well. Microsoft had a history of saying too much too far in advance and then being unable to deliver. The purpose of PDC was to give developers an advance peak at what was being worked on, and get their feedback. This gave both developers and Microsoft time to react before a product was finalized. The disaster that was Longhorn let Steven Sinofsky bring his philosophy to Windows, and it was the complete opposite. Don’t talk to people, even under NDA, about what you are doing until it is almost fully baked. Don’t let developers talk to customers. Impose secrecy (and impose it even on enterprise customers, which is a horrible mistake). What did this get Microsoft? A bunch of rookie mistakes, including failure to address the Start Menu/Desktop situation in a way that traditional form factor users find acceptable. 80%, 90%, perhaps 99.99% of dissatisfaction with Windows 8 is all tied up in this one issue. Failure to disclose intent early, and respond to the resulting feedback, is holding Windows 8 back.
And the Windows 8 mistake continues. Early disclosure of the direction for Windows Blue and Windows 9, or whatever the next couple of releases are called, would go a long way towards assuaging power user discontent. It would also give Microsoft feedback on if what they are doing is sufficient, in time to actually react to it. But no, that is not the philosophy of the Windows team. Nor Microsoft in general these days. The irony is that when Microsoft was considered at the height of its arrogance it was actually listening to customers very closely. Now that it is fighting for its right to continue to be called an industry leader it displays the greatest sense of arrogance. “We know what’s right for you and we’ll tell you what that is when we attempt to shove it down your throat”. If my Microsoft friends don’t believe that is their attitude, then it’s because they are on the inside looking out. The view from outside is enlightening.
Microsoft needs to improve customer engagement, dramatically. And the first thing that will take is to recognize that the consumer teams’ attitude towards communicating futures is just plain wrong. That doesn’t mean abandonment of controlled information release, it means applying it more intelligently. It means disclosing platform direction early. It means bringing developers on board early. It means giving general technology direction to the public early (ala what BillG used to do) without talking specific releases or products. It does not mean releasing every detail of a product in advance.
Microsoft has to make a clear differentiation between platform and product. They need to nurture the ecosystem around the platform. That requires openness. They need to reserve “shock and awe” for the product. The problem I see from the consumer guys is that as much as they say the word “platform” they don’t get it. Even those that used to get it now seem to have amnesia. They drunk the consumer Kool-Aid.
Let me contrast three strategic thrusts going on at Microsoft. Windows, Windows Phone, and Azure. Windows and Windows Phone are in the “shut up and ship” camp. Azure is in the ENGAGE camp. It seems like every week Scott Guthrie is announcing new Azure technology previews or releases. Everything about Azure is exciting. Amazon, Salesforce, and a few others defined cloud computing. Azure is displacing them. It has the Big Mo. Let me make this clear, AZURE IS GOING TO WIN the cloud computing infrastructure and platform battle. Meanwhile Windows and Windows Phone continue to alienate their ecosystems. It is unclear if Windows Phone will ever amount to a significant third ecosystem. It is unclear that Windows will be able to halt an overall market share decline against IOS and Android tablets. Azure developers are excited. No, it’s beyond excitement. Windows and Windows Phone developers? Not so much. They are, at best, conflicted. Azure is doing platforms right. Windows and Windows Phone? They prefer to “shut up and ship”, even if it risks no one caring what they ship.
It turns out that the consumer ecosystem as well as the community of influencers craves direction and interaction with the vendor every bit as much as Enterprise CIOs do. Put simply, the consumer guys are wrong about secrecy. At least at Microsoft. I hope they figure it out soon, because “shut up and ship” is not helping their cause.
In closing let me remind everyone that I think Windows Phone and Windows 8 are great products. It is the failure to engage with the ecosystem in a way that Microsoft well understands, and continues to do successfully in the enterprise (STB) space, that I’m criticizing. Forget that conventional “shock and awe” consumer wisdom. It was wrong. Return platform evangelism, including willingness to discuss “futures”, to the forefront and watch Windows and Windows Phone adoption explode.