The Microsoft Brand I

Many readers have commented that I am biased against Microsoft. As one reader noted “you are just blinded by some deep-seated misanthropic dislike – and there is nothing that Microsoft can do that is right”. Wrong.

First, I have and continue to work with Microsoft software and the best test of good software is the latter statement -> “I continue to work with it”. Second, I have met, conversed and worked with countless numbers of people on Microsofts staff and have generally found them to be helpful, hardworking, intelligent and amenable. My problem is that they work for an executive elite whose business morals are sometimes greatly suspect. And for reasons unknown, that same executive suite is now inexplicably accelerating the trend towards gutting Microsofts Brand.

A Brand can be thought of a shorthand seal of approval confirmed in the marketplace by purchasing a companys products and services and being largely satisfied by them over time. Brand can also be thought of as a willingness or proclivity to buy the companys product in the future because from past purchases one has built a series of expectations and real attributes associated with that companys products and consequent support service Microsoft has a real problem with its Brand. Take Desktop Windows.

Windows has had the Brand of being one of the lowest initial cost software. Typically Microsoft is provides one of the best price-performance offerings complete with latest features and services plus no show stoppers. Also users have to be willing to accept Redmond Proprietary – generally Microsoft software runs only in Windows or some portion of Microsofts proprietary stack. But developing only for Microsofts stack allows Redmonds developers to allegedly deliver the best features, with highest reliability and security, lowest intial and ongoing costs ahead of most, if not all competitors.

Being close to this formula is what helped win Windows and Office their dominant positions in the market. Windows is now regarded as somewhat reliable (wait for Service Pack 2 or third time charm) but no showstoppers. The OS is also expected to deliver pretty good performance and reasonable resource usage. Ditto for Office. Both Office and Windows have at least matched if not lead in GUI ease of use and convenience (though Apple Mac OS users might beg to differ on the latter point). The support for Windows and Office varies up and down over time but so does support from everybody else. The amount of 3rd party software available for the Windows is unmatched by any other desktop OS – and only perhaps in advanced graphics and specialized engineering does Windows not have the best selection of software. Ditto for Office especially Excel.

Windows security has been haphazard but after two Promises of Trustworthy Computing, Windows appears to be rounding the bend towards comparable security with its MacOS and Linux desktop rivals. Office is vulnerable at the extension end with ActiveX and VBA/VSA – but that is small potatoes and protected most of the time behind network firewalls. Finally Windows has had one of the broadest sets of compatibility with various hardware devices, often pioneering in hardware interface conveniences such as plug-and-play and active troubleshooting.

So what is wrong with the Desktop Windows or Office Brands ?

In a word, Vista. The latest version of Windows seems to break everyone of the fixtures of the Microsoft Brand.
Performance.
Vista is really Microsofts fifth or sixth time charmed attempt at delivering a slim and trim OS with performance as well as trustworthy reliability and security. 95, 98, NT, Millenia, 2000, XP have all had incremental improvements in reliability (and later security) as goals. But Vista has been promised as the one that would deliver – putting Windows on a new base and foundation for better performance with security for all its apps and users. And has Vista delivered ? Well, to quote Hertz, not exactly.

The bottom line is that despite increasing the runtime size over XP by a factor of 2 times, 2-3 times for MacOS and 3-5 times for most Linux OS – Windows Vista is:
1)slower especially for 3D GUI operations but across the board. Redmond does not allow benchmarks to be published and there have been few in the trade press. But experience has shown that for many OS utility, program start up and other OS dependent tasks (think open file dialogs, messaging, directory/file tree display, etc) Vista is slower than XP;
2)bloated. At start-up Vista needs more resources than any other desktop operations. And for concurrent operation of many programs (I currently have Dreamweaver, Snagit, WinExplorer, Open Office Word and Firefox running in Windows XP – it was notably slower to work like this on a colleagues laptop with double the memory, 30% more CPU, and double the hard disk space).
3)clumsy to use. I am using a colleagues Vista machine and I am being challenged with popup alerts at inconvenient times – and Vista does not learn that in certain configurations ( for example offline or with a small working set of simple programs) challenging me is not what I want done. Unfortunately, Office joins Vista here in being distinctly Not People Ready. And many of the changes seem frivolous. I have had to field dozens of colleagues questions why Vista or Office changed this or that menu, process, or other familiar workflow. I have had to spell out in no uncertain terms – all Vista and Office questions are verboten – I am sticking with Linux and XP, and Open Office/Google Office as my points of departure – only questions on those programs will be accepted.

Not the Lowest Cost

For some reason, Microsoft believes it can continue to allow Windows and Office to become the single largest cost of purchasing a laptop or PC. But Adobe, AutoCAD, MathSoft and many other shrink-wrap software vendors have a similar problem. Way out of this mess – slash prices by a factor of 3-5 and go to annual cost or significant upgrade model.

But Vista has doubly botched this. By going to a complex 6 to 8 versions of Windows Vista, purchase clarity has gone the Way of the Dodo at 1 Microsoft Way. Read the complaining notes at PCMagazine or Microsoft Watch about what version of Vista to recommend or what goodies users are supposed to be getting with their Vista Premium or Ultimate edition – not pretty!

Even worse is the second half of the Vista Double Botch which was to have significant peripheral hardware breakdowns and software compatibility problems – and this is not just 3rd party but also Redmonds own apps. Now what does this do to People Ready and lowset TCO-Total Cost of Operations? I can guarantee you those TCO studies say go slow with Vista upgrades. But consumers have no choice – Vista is being foisted on them But big business knows and they have stayed away from Vista in droves. Did I tell you the joke about the company that converted to Vista and …… ?? I just did-it was a joke.

Most Applications and Interoperability

One of the winning formulas for Windows and Office is that they have the most applications running on them or compatible with their APIs. This has lowered demands for interoperability to the point that Microsoft gets everybody else to make the link between their systems and Windows. Even LAMP, the vaunted Linux/Apache/MySQL/PHP,Python,Perl open source power package has a WAMP version – Windows/Apache/MySQL/PHP. And it is free and easy to install. However, as noted above, Vista has broken the mold and has thousands of applications that are no longer compatible with it – and have to be fixed. But 3rd party developers who are XP and earlier versions of Windows compatible are faced with a conundrum – re-write for Vista with minimal business user gain or add new features for XP or the Web , and wait until a move to Vista is user-demand induced.

Meanwhile, closed system stacks, proprietary software, and silos of information have exacted such a large toll on IT systems, that CEOS, CFOs, and CIOs are demanding open and interoperable as opposed to closed and proprietary stacks. Result Linux and Open Source have started to take large market share. Open Source software, Java and other cross platform tools, Web 2.0 and Internet based apps that work in any browser on any client OS, SOA andWeb Services base software – these are some of the trends that have gained large traction in the past few years as an offset to proprietary and closed.

The essential problem is that Windows Vista and Windows Vista Server 2008 promote a closed shop offering. Of course, Microsoft offers Interoperability Day or Declarations, but the hard facts are that interoperability if provided is begrudging and with the important proviso that applications run best in Windows Vista and Vista Server services. I call it the SilverLight solution.

SilverLight is Microsofts version of Adobes Flash. But all development tools for Silverlight run in Windows only. And the list of browsers that Microsoft guarantees SilverLight apps will run on are three – Internet Explorer, Mozilla Firefox, and Apple Safari. And of course Microsoft has never promised Internet interoperability and later withdrawn that promise – oops just with CSS, DOM, and JavaScript(Redmond is ten years late meeting their standards commitments) … oh IIS will be perpetually free … uhh IE Explorer on Mac OS … well, support for all W3C XML standards, etc, etc. So when Microsoft promises that Silverlight will have a runtime player which will be able to run on the Mac and Linux, the question is not just When but also How? Will SilverLight runtimes be like Java – able to run both online and offline with all the features and APIs across Linux, MacOS, Solaris and Windows identically the same ? If you believe so, I have a Lively Mesh and a Bridge in Brooklyn available for bargain prices.

Take Live Mesh as an example of another Redmond SilverLight solution. Live Mesh development tools run in Windows only. Live Mesh will work in Mac at some future date. Ditto for Symbian, Palm OS and other handheld OS…. maybe. And the APIs are .. well open sort of … Redmond gets the first and last word. And of course Live Mesh works best with Windows and Windows services. Redmond already has a lead and Redmond can guarantee that they get to keep that lead in the future. But hey, this is like Suns Java VM or Adobes Flash Player. The runtimes may be available on more plaatform and even with same performance (Flash Player Linux just got there but Unix, Solaris and BSD are out of date) – but Sun and Adobe determine what comes next in terms of features, performance, reliability and security even if the source is open. So why not Live Mesh ? And where Live Mesh runs ? and with what level of compatibility?

So users are back to choosing in the case of Live Mesh or SilverLight whether the software is half-full or half empty, half-open or half-proprietary. And Microsoft has the market power to make it so.