Consumers vs. Users

I have an incredible backlog of topics and just don’t know where to start.  So, I’ll start with something simple and quick.  In a recent article someone complained about Microsoft referring to “Consumers” rather than “Users”.  Yes, they were complaining that Microsoft called them a Consumer when they felt they were a User.  I find this complaint funny.

Microsoft, like many technology companies, has always struggled with terminology.  Yes these terms actually matter, but sometimes you have to live with suboptimal terminology.  In this case the problem with the term “user” is that EVERYONE is a user of something.  What term best describes a user who makes a purchase for personal use rather than for the use of, or on behalf of, an organization?  That person is called a consumer.  Microsoft didn’t invent that term.  It just tries to use it to differentiate between a user in the organizational context and a user in the personal context.

The problem comes in because the consumer user and organizational user can have dramatic amounts of overlap in the computing world.  Lets face it, when I buy a toaster for my home there is no overlaps with my use of a PC for an organizational employer.  But when I buy a smartphone with my own money and want to be able to read my organizational email, access my organizational calendar, share documents via my organization’s Sharepoint, etc. then there is a lot of overlap.

But Microsoft does have a real problem.  When it builds products with the priority on an organization’s Information Workers, which is Microsoft’s traditional area of strength, those products tend not to be very good for pure consumers.  They don’t even tend to be good for crossover users.  That’s the trap Microsoft got into with Windows Mobile.  All of the energy went into adding features like better centralized device management, better enterprise security features, better integration with Office and various Microsoft enterprise server products, and making it easier to build ruggedized/specialized devices around Windows Mobile;  Doing things to improve Windows Mobile’s user interface and create great entertainment experiences kept getting put on the back burner.

So Microsoft goes and tries to create products that are ideal for the pure consumer, and in the process creates horrible gaps between its offerings.  For example, why does Microsoft have Exchange for organizational email and Hotmail for consumers?  And they aren’t just name changes or variants, they are different offerings with different feature sets and different user experiences.  Oh, I know why things started out that way, but after 13 years you’d think they would have unified the offering.  And to make things worse, sometimes they market the consumer offerings to small business.  As a recent example, ever notice the Windows Live “To the Cloud” ad that features the prospective CEO of a startup using it to collaborate with his co-founders as they try to get funding for their new venture?   Hotmail has also been offered to small businesses under the Office Live program, even though Exchange (and Exchange Online) is owned by the Office organization.  Wow, confusing.

Ok, confusing is too kind.  Outlook claims to work with the Windows Live Calendar yet I have problems using them together all the time.  Right now in fact I’m having a problem with Outlook being unable to sync some of my appointments, a problem I never have with Outlook and Exchange (for which Outlook was designed).  In fact, it has gotten so bad that I prefer to use the web interface for Windows Live Hotmail and Windows Live Calendar over Outlook.  So even when Microsoft tries to unify its offerings, it does a mediocre job.

Perhaps the most confusing place in Microsoft’s offerings is around Windows Phone 7.  Microsoft broke out of the trap it was in with Windows Mobile by aggressively moving all Enterprise-related work to lower priority when producing Windows Phone 7.  That worked, but it does leave WP7 way behing the Blackberry in meeting Enterprise requirements.  And even behind the iPhone (which, for example, supports VPNs and local SQL databases, neither of which are available on WP7).  But they did create a good consumer product.  Hopefully the next major update will bring the crossover user fully into the fold.

It gets less confusing when you get to Microsoft’s Interactive Entertainment Business.  There Consumer means “consumer of entertainment”, and they compromise little for that crossover user.  The XBox could have some very interesting applicatibility outside the gaming/entertainment realm, but no one is going to pursue that angle.  Zune happily blew up the Windows Media Player/Windows Media Center strategy of integrating the media experience into the overall Windows platform experience in favor of a more Apple-like pure consumer offering.  Kinnect will probably break the mold, but only because Steve Ballmer seems to recognize that he has the lead in a technology that redefines all user experiences in the future.

The bottom line here is that when Microsoft says “consumer” they mean a product designed to be sold and serviced through retail channels, primarily to users purchasing the product for their own (or their family’s) rather than organizational use.  I have no problem with the terminology.  But it shouldn’t let Microsoft off the hook for addressing the real needs of users, and that includes consumers who are also organizational users.  And what I think neither Microsoft nor most of the analysts and press who follow them get is that it is Microsoft’s failure to delight the crossover audience that is at the core of its malaise.

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