Microsoft, Where Do You Want to Go Today?


October 28, 2003
Posted by Joe Wilcox at October 28, 2003 09:35 AM

Microsoft has had some catchy slogans over the years. My fav: "Where Do You Want to Go Today?" That’s also my question to the company and its executives.

Microsoft generated a helluva lot of buzz about Longhorn leading into this year’s developer conference, and it’s a safe bet the noise will continue long afterwards. Talking about the future is a longstanding Microsoft practice. But, I question the sense of continuing that strategy.

Back when PCs were a growth business and Microsoft was gobbling up market share from competitors, talking about the future made sense. In fact, Microsoft honed to an art the science of overshadowing competitor’s real new product releases with talk about future products. I remember the WordPerfect 7 product release, when instead PC magazines covered their pages with buzz about the new-fangled features coming in Office 97. Microsoft effectively stole the show, so to speak, touting so-called even better features coming in six months or so. The tactic helped stall sales of WordPerfect, then still the market leader in word processing. In those early PC sales days, six months was an eternity–at least when looking back at another product, which would appear outdated. Microsoft’s knack for marketing is legendary for good reason.

But, that kind of tactic might be the wrong approach right now, and I would advise Microsoft to catch onto this pretty quickly. PC sales have moved into maintenance mode in most markets where Microsoft dominates. More importantly, Microsoft has the incumbent products, too. Selling to a maintenance market isn’t the same as selling to a growth market.

Talking about future features and solving customer problems down the road–particularly for products that might be three years from release–doesn’t make sense when customers are in pain today. Particularly businesses. That’s an OK tactic when trying to outflank a competitor, but maybe not when your products are the competition.

Microsoft has made this mistake before. The company’s last developer conference focused on Web services and Extensible Markup Language (XML). Microsoft was all the rage about .Net and how that was going to make business better. In early 2001, Microsoft had announced the first .Net deliverable, HailStorm, a set of 14 consumer Web services.

But, Microsoft caused great confusion among developers, customers and partners about what .Net really was. Later retrenchment and the chucking of HailStorm helped put clarity around .Net, but that doesn’t erase that Microsoft pretty unclearly articulated a Web services strategy that was a work in progress.

Longhorn isn’t much different. The next-generation Windows clearly is a work in progress for which Microsoft is still architecting some components. One thing I will say: Longhorn looks to be the encapsulation of the Web services strategy unveiled at the last developer conference. Six years in the making, looks like.

I grant Microsoft credit for vision. One of the company’s strengths is forward planning, a trait missing at many competing high-tech vendors. Thinking five, six years down the road is a commendable quality in any business.

That said, it’s a fair bet many customers want solutions to their problems, today, with their existing Microsoft products. In a slow-growth, maintenance market customer satisfaction–and so retention–should be any company’s top priority. Kudos to Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer for tying customer satisfaction to employee incentives and raises.

The No. 1 business-customer concerns would appear to be resolution of long-standing security problems and easing patch management. Microsoft has articulated a plan that would start to address these issues–in the future, I might add–but security should have been center stage at the developers conference. A last-minute scheduling change putting security as the conference lead off could have communicated Microsoft’s seriousness about security to its developers and customers. I credit Microsoft for giving attendees a book on writing secure code, but that’s just not enough.

What more effective message to customers than Microsoft putting its highly touted next-generation Windows one day behind an impromptu symposium on security? And it would focus Microsoft and its developers on a top customer enterprise concern today. Right now, security dominates the last day of the conference, which typically is when attendance would be lowest.

Microsoft must understand that Linux is a serious threat, even if only in mindshare. Too much of Microsoft’s past successes can be credited to competitors making mistakes the smart folks in Redmond exploited. Microsoft needs to seriously address customer concerns today, right now. Because if Linux, open source or some other solution comes up with the right alternative for dissatisfied business customers, Microsoft might find some of its major products joining vanquished competitors as road kill.

So, Microsoft, where do you want to go today?