2009: The Year Microsoft ‘Gets’ Users?

The new year is upon us, and 2009 finds Microsoft waging a technology war on even more fronts.

It’s battling for market share in the cloud, the datacenter, the living room, the mobile phone and on its home turf, the PC. But unlike most of the campaigns Microsoft’s undertaken in its quarter-century history, these battles require more than brute force in the marketplace. They call for a deft understanding of its users.

Will 2009 be the year that Microsoft shows how well it understands its customers? And, if it does, will it then get lost in the product behemoth’s march to market?

As it spars with the likes of Google, Apple, Blackberry maker Research in Motion, Salesforce.com, Linux, Mozilla, Nintendo and Sony, to name a few, Microsoft’s finding itself farther from its core business on the PC.

As it battles for market share with mobile phones, music players, game consoles — even software on-demand, Microsoft can’t count on an entrenched user base outside of its core PC markets to fall back on when the going gets tough. At least one division within Microsoft knows this well.

Xbox: The X Factor

Microsoft delivered a reasonably solid and full-featured product ahead of rivals With the Xbox 360. It cultivated publishing partners, kept hurdles relatively low for software developers, remained aggressive in pricing and managed to adjust the platform to evolve with the times — most recently upping its focus on downloadable video and Wii-like avatars.

Sure, there were some problems, such as the so-called Red Ring of Death reliability issues. But overall, the Xbox 360 represents Microsoft at its best: leveraging its tremendous resources to deliver a product that fits the needs of next-gen console users. And it did this after brute-forcing its way into the game console space.

But a look at the Vista operating system experience also threatens to make the Xbox success an exception to the rule.

The current, oft-maligned Windows OS may have been the biggest stumble in Microsoft’s history as a mature company. The biggest complaint about Vista is that it’s a lower performance system and a hardware hog.

And yet, with a reported 180-million-plus licenses sold, Vista’s still been a monumental success by anyone’s measure of software sales.

I’m sure many would agree that one of Vista’s core selling points is improved security. It’s certainly not for snappier performance or lower hardware requirements. So this would suggest that a chief reason to upgrade to Vista is for a more secure version of Windows.

So Microsoft got us to move to Vista to protect us from XP and its security issues. Next, we’ll be moving to Windows 7 as a way to solve Vista’s shortcomings. This is one heck of a business: as a solution for the flaws in Microsoft’s products, you get to buy more Microsoft products. (I’m reminded here of a quote attributed to information graphics guru Edward Tufte, about there being only two industries that call their customers “users,” with software being the other one.)

With Vista came Office 2007

Remember the Office 2007 “ribbon” user interface? (You can call it “Fluent” to sound like you’re one of the cognoscenti.) Remember how it came about as a reaction to the baffling set of menus and buttons popularized in previous versions of Office? Remember knowing how to use it intuitively, out of the box? Neither do I.

I still feel battered when forced to undertake some task — like clicking on an embedded table in my document — to get the Ribbon to display the commands I’m seeking. Microsoft’s take is that “The tabs on the Ribbon display commands that are most relevant for each of the task areas in the applications.” My take is that Microsoft determined what’s relevant for you, and what’s not. Did it really seek to understand its customers?

That might be too mean; or not considering that Microsoft had to run a guerrilla campaign to convince people that Vista was something they wanted.

Let’s hope that’s not the same thinking that’s going into Azure. Or in Kilimanjaro — an upcoming, highly scalable version of SQL Server. Microsoft won’t have the luxury of running a Mojave Experiment to convince enterprise developers that they need to reconsider those.

And in mobile, Microsoft had better be sure it makes all the right guesses when it comes to meeting users’ wants and needs. It’s facing the same competition from the Symbian OS. But 2009 won’t be the same market as Microsoft is used to: Symbian’s now owned by Nokia, which plans to open source it.

Rivalry from low-cost OS vendors won’t end there. The Windows Mobile platform got some new competition from the likes of Google-backed Android mobile OS, which made its debut in the T-Mobile G1 smartphone, and is only expected to see additional support by hardware carriers. Here’s one more free alternative to Windows Mobile.

Microsoft will have to change its game if it wants to stay competitive in mobile. Consumers have already shown a willingness to choose the competition over Windows Mobile, which has been kicking around the marketplace in various forms since the beginning of the decade.

Microsoft’s long past the days when it competed solely in the PC software realm and could rely on these kinds of dynamics to support all of its businesses. And it’s outside of PC software is where it’s faces its toughest battles.

Witness the rise in competition from Google across a variety of platforms. Consider Apple’s market share. The continuing popularity of Linux-based systems. The proliferation of cloud-based services.

That last one must really worry Microsoft. We saw the software stalwart first fumble toward Internet-based services with its software-plus-services plan, and later, with hosted versions of a few of its products, like Dynamics CRM. And now it’s pushing into the cloud in a whole new way with Windows Azure.

“Windows Azure is an open platform that will support both Microsoft and non-Microsoft languages and environments,” Microsoft says in a pitch that focuses on the benefits of software-as-a-service. (“Start projects without the hurdles of lengthy training or waiting for new infrastructure to be delivered and installed.” “Developers often find their best ideas only hit limits once usage spikes, and opportunities can be missed while emergency capacity is added.”)

Microsoft’s revealed scant details on Azure aside from brochureware and some top-level presentations so it still has time to tighten up its strategy and study its Xbox success, for starters. At this point, I’m not convinced that it’s making a compelling case for switching to its flavor of utility computing, which makes this problematic considering that there don’t seem to be as many barriers to entry in this space. (Case in point: Amazon.com, of all companies, is now a force in cloud services — and becoming a bigger player all the time. And it’s offering Windows Server and SQL Server.)

But don’t worry too much

Microsoft has plenty of platforms from which to launch a stronger market offering in its non-PC categories. Considering the sheer number of products that Microsoft launches, updates and patches each year, the company has a pretty good track record overall. What am I saying? — it’s got a terrific track record. It makes money, tons and tons of it. Vista’s got problems, and millions of users.

And Windows 7’s already getting praised for its improvements over Vista. But considering what that’s really saying about Microsoft’s capacity to understand the user, I wouldn’t get my hopes up on an easy fight in other sectors in 2009.

Christopher Saunders is managing editor of InternetNews.com.

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