Weekly Review: Microsoft Stumbles As a Service

Microsoft’s continuing problems with its MSN Messenger service, which began early last week, demonstrate the challenges faced when a market-leading giant attempts to dominate an emerging new technology — one that threatens its leadership position.

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Although MSN Messenger is a consumer-oriented service, Microsoft intends to use the underlying instant messaging technology to drive notification and other components of its Hailstorm initiative launched a few months back (see Weekly Review: All Hail HailStorm?). Businesses will be encouraged to draw on the Hailstorm set of Web services to drive mission-critical activities such as communicating with customers, collecting orders and payments and tracking delivery status. As a result, it’s no surprise that close attention is being paid to potential weaknesses in their consumer market precursors such as Messenger and Passport.

Not only is Microsoft’s technology on trial; the company is also being assessed on its ability to perform well as a service business. Here it is learning the same lesson as many predecessors that have attempted to make the transition from making products to delivery services. Company cultures and business processes that seem to work perfectly well in the product sector just do not make the grade in the services sector.

An episode that started out as a partial loss of service for a number of MSN Messenger users last Tuesday had become a customer service debacle by Friday, when Microsoft finally began to concede there was a problem and said what it was trying to do about it. Keeping customers in the dark for such a long time is a cardinal sin in the services business, as any experienced services executive will tell you.

But Microsoft is renowned for refusing to admit bugs in its products until it has fully investigated and eliminated all possible alternative scapegoats. Its preference is to delay any acknowledgement of a problem until it can issue a patch or a service pack. This is hardly a practice to condone, but it seems to work in the product business, where customers take much of the responsibility on themselves to make allowances for the imperfections of today’s technology.

In a service business, all that responsibility remains with the provider, and all the client can do is remain a patient and helpless bystander. In such circumstances, everyone realizes that in an imperfect world unexpected glitches sometimes do happen, and clients are supportive as long as the provider keeps them informed and gives them confidence that it is doing everything it can. Deny that there’s a problem (or blame it on an isolated hardware fault, as Microsoft did last week), and customers will rapidly lose confidence and patience.

Watching the Smaller Guys
Yet even if Microsoft had acted with impeccable service quality credentials, it would still have lost face. The trouble with new technology is that it breaks down often when it’s at an early stage of development. Look at the early versions of Windows, regarded for most of the 1980s as Bill Gates’ personal folly and a doomed attempt to emulate the Apple Macintosh. At the time, nobody cared because only a few enthusiasts used Windows and, in any case, IBM was building a bigger, better version called OS/2 (which, of course, flopped).

Now Microsoft is attempting to build .Net and Hailstorm before an audience of millions, and breakdown is not an option for a company with massive resources and which aspires to an enterprise-strength reputation. Meanwhile, smaller rivals are free to perfect alternative technologies through trial and error, supported by eager bands of early enthusiasts who, instead of losing patience when things go wrong, rally round to lend a hand perfecting the technology.

In the early stages of a new technology wave, some of the most important developments are often led by smaller players and startups rather than established industry giants. So it’s always a good idea to keep an eye on what those second-tier companies are up to.

Two weeks ago saw the publication of WSUI (Web Services User Interface), a new specification that governs how multiple Web services are presented to users within a single Web page. It is intended to help automate the process of embedding a third-party service into a Web page that can display on multiple devices ranging from Web browsers to mobile phones. See related story, Bringing Web Services to the End User.

While many Web services standards efforts have been led by industry heavyweights such as IBM, HP, Sun and Microsoft, the names behind WSUI are less well-known, albeit well-regarded in their specialist fields of expertise.

WSUI has been developed by corporate portal platform vendor Epicentric, aided by several companies with active ASP programs and initiatives, such as content management platform vendor Documentum, ASP aggregator Jamcracker, knowledge management platform vendor Intraspect, and online content management specialist Yellowbrix, which last month announced its acquisition of ailing content syndicator iSyndicate.

Hidden pioneers like these, with direct experience of the challenges to be overcome, often prove to be the most effective instigators of much-needed standards in developing technology sectors. Although it’s important to watch what the big-name companiess are doing, ignoring some of the other smaller players often means missing out on the bigger picture.

This review of the week’s news highlights is by ASPnews.com founder and consulting analyst Phil Wainewright. A comprehensive news digest is published every month in the ASP News Review newsletter, available exclusively to subscribers.

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