The ‘Wow’ Is Yesterday

Reporter’s Notebook: I spent three days this week at Microsoft’s  Redmond,
Wash., campus meeting with executives so I could better understand their plans and share with readers their visions for the company’s future.

The folks at Microsoft even offered recommendations for the best
lattes in town, Seattle being the king of the roost — or roast — where
coffee is concerned.

Things went swimmingly — until the very end of the visit. That’s when many of the maddening things about Microsoft crystallized for me in one incident that was as infuriating as it was trivial.

But before I get to that, I want to share the single-biggest thing I learned
in Redmond: Vista is yesterday’s news.

Like most companies, Microsoft does a lot of internal self-promotion. There
are posters promoting the company’s open source group in every building I
visited, signs for, announcements about ongoing projects and fliers
promoting a variety of community-oriented initiatives on bulletin boards.

But I saw nothing about Vista; I didn’t see a single “Wow” on their walls about the Vista launch.

Why? They’re already working on their next generation of products.

Microsoft hears the footsteps

The company is aware that an emerging business model like software-as-a-service (SaaS) could change how customers acquire software, and that companies like Google  are changing how people use software over the Web.

People like to pile on Microsoft, saying the company “just doesn’t get it.” But Microsoft would beg to differ. It thinks some of its competitors are the ones who’ve got it wrong.

“There’s the idea
that you watch what your competitors are doing, and then there’s the idea of
watching what your customers want,” said Tim O’Brien, director of platform strategy for Microsoft. “We think it’s more important to look at
what your customers want.”

Where SaaS is concerned, Microsoft thinks in terms of adding online
components to extend the reach of its existing software.

One example is the on-demand services rolled into the Exchange Hosted Services brand. It complements traditional enterprise e-mail with filtering and storage applications.

Microsoft is also offering customers a variety of new financing options, including monthly installments and deferred payments, to counter the attractive pricing structure of pay-per-month SaaS offerings.

Microsoft’s unified communications group is also preparing for a big summer
push in the hopes of fulfilling CEO Steve Ballmer’s vision of people being
“connected everywhere.”

The company doesn’t pretend that it’s invented the idea of VoIP connected to
e-mail, IM and more. Janice Kapner, director of marketing for the unified
communications group, readily admitted that “the convergence of IP telephony
and the desktop was happening before Microsoft came to play.”

But its time is here, and Microsoft is ready to take advantage.

Redmond’s Dark Side

In many ways, Microsoft is like a lot of other companies, only bigger. A lot
bigger. Some 45,000 employees drive to a corporate park that is one square mile in size and contains more than 50 buildings. Each of these buildings has an employee parking lot with reserved spaces and a separate visitor parking lot.

The user experience is that you find the building number you’re
looking for, park in visitor parking, register your car with the
receptionist, and then join your escort into the building. Then at the end of the day, you find your car and head back to your hotel.

What’s not supposed to be a part of this user experience? Your car is not supposed to get towed. Especially not on get-away day when you’re due to catch a red-eye back to New York.

But that’s what happened. Because visitor parking for Building
17 isn’t like visitor parking in all the other buildings. It has one spot reserved for an employee. There’s even a sign, which you would notice if you were looking for it.

Doesn’t this sound like a usability issue? No one is looking for that sign
in that spot in visitor parking. Or maybe it’s a consistency issue. Since when is there reserved employee parking in the visitor parking lot? Clearly, this is also a branding issue.

Having a reserved employee spot in visitor parking would be like
calling something “Office Live” that doesn’t have anything to do with Office.
It would be like training users to use Ctrl-F for “find” in every desktop
application — except for Outlook, where Ctrl-F means “forward.”

I could have complained. But to whom? The receptionist wasn’t at fault; no
one from security asked her about my car. Security wasn’t at fault,
either; somebody complained that I was in their spot. And although the towing company has $227.94 of my money, it wasn’t at fault. It did its job.

I was at fault. And that’s because I was the one who didn’t see the sign.

I had two hours to retrieve my car and get to the airport. So Building 17’s receptionist called me a cab to get me to Ibsen Towing. While there, a
guy named Jay informed me that I had 10 days to contest the towing charge in accordance with state law.

“But there’s a $53 court fee that’s non-refundable, and good luck beating
Microsoft in court.”

Michael Hickins is a senior editor of

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