Thesis: Microsoft is innovating beyond their market relevance.
To recap, Windows 8.0 incorporated a drastic User Interface (UI) design change — Microsoft removed the “Start” button. Due to poor market performance, and amongst significant criticism, Microsoft reversed direction, and is incorporating a “limited” start button in to the first Windows 8 update, called “Windows 8.1”.
People are highly divided about Microsoft 8.1. Some people see 8.0 as a significant UI innovation, and see 8.1 as a step backward, while Enterprise customers and long-time Windows users see the lack of a “Start” button as a cost and a hindrance.
With EVERY major Windows UI change, there has been “UI help” EXCEPT Windows 8. What is “UI help”? Windows 95 could run WFW 3.11 “Program Manager”, as an optional interface in addition to the (then new) “Start” button. At the time, the user base was used to launching “WordPerfect” and “Lotus 1-2-3” from an “Applications” Program Group. A machine like this could be converted to Win95, and with very little effort, the user could have the exact same “Applications” group, as well as WordPerfect and Lotus 1-2-3 icons.
The same is true with Windows 2000 — the administrators could optionally install all the NT 4.0 admin tools, such as “User Manager for Domains”, so that the admins could continue to work as normal day 1, while gradually acclimating to MMC. Meanwhile, the user experience of Windows 2000 was not exceedingly dissimilar to Windows 9x/NT, so there was significant continuity for the end user. Even with XP — if you didn’t like the “candy bar”, you could revert to the Win2000 UI. Vista was a clear break, but people had 15 years of “Start Button” by then, so making it an actual button was an easy transition. With Windows 8, after almost 20 years of “Start Button”, Microsoft took it away completely, with no “UI help”.
I’ve been using Windows since there WAS a Windows — since the 80’s — and I had to Google how to use a major feature of the operating system: how to log out of my profile. I didn’t have to do that with any preceding version of Windows — even WFW3.11 — because there was always a menu option or some kind of visual cue that was instantly recognizable as “CLICK HERE TO LOG OUT”. Even Win 7, with it’s kludgy lock thingy, OBVIOUSLY shows you where to log out. I’m using this as ONE example.
With this, and many other examples, “re-learning Windows” becomes an obstacle to actually USING Windows. For the first time since Windows 95, before I can be productive, I have to re-learn the UI paradigm, and there’s no continuity. As a user, I can’t just “install Windows 8 and go”, or “purchase a new Win 8 laptop and go”, without overcoming the “re-learn the UI” obstacle. As an Enterprise Administrator, I can’t roll out Win8 to 1,000 (or 20,000) desktops without significant productivity loss or re-training costs.
I often use the car metaphor: This is like taking the steering wheel, pedals, shifter, and signal lever, and replacing them with a confusing mix of buttons, mouse gestures, arcane keystrokes, and mouse cursor hot spots. So in order to drive the car, instead of the familiar paradigm that exists in EVERY car, now I’m confronted with something new that I don’t understand, and can’t really use well without putting effort in to it.
AFTER the release of Windows 8, AFTER ignoring community input — and perhaps with the pre-release support of a healthy dose of misguided positive ravings from MANY pundits and power users who insisted that the Emperor’s new clothes were the greatest thing since the rounded-rectangle — Microsoft released a lemon.
In order to CTRL+Z (undo) their mistake, they had to switch in to defensive mode and cook up Windows 8.1 — still not a complete “fix” for 8.0, but certainly enough of a compromise to allow Enterprise and long-time Windows users to transition to the new UI. The transition (“UI help”) should have been a day-one feature, and the lack of a transition wasn’t bold — it was stupid.
So the question of innovation becomes irrelevant. The problem is that Microsoft has innovated outside their market demand. Innovation is great, unless it’s impractical.
Microsoft almost did the same thing with X-Box ONE.
Microsoft’s pre-E3 concept of X-Box ONE was always-on, always-connected. Games would become purely software, and reselling (“used games” market) would be a thing of the past. New users of the software would pay a one-time fee, regardless of whether they bought the software online, “shared” it with a friend, or installed it from disc. Because of the always-on requirement, X-Box ONE users would be required to “check in” once per day — connect to the Microsoft Mother Ship to re-validate all licenses.
The community responded with some legitimate complaints: We have soldiers overseas who don’t necessarily HAVE internet access, as well as people who are current X-Box users, but who live in rural areas, with dial-up (or no) internet access. One of Microsoft’s developers responded with a statement that X-Box ONE users should live in areas with decent internet access — “no big deal”. This is the equivalent of Marie Antoinette’s famous quote, “The peasants have no bread? Let them eat cake”. How arrogant to assume that people would be willing to make changes, perhaps even lifestyle changes, in order to use X-Box ONE. The response from Microsoft was that people without internet should just continue to use X-Box 360 (current gen), while people WITH internet can leverage the new features and capabilities of X-Box ONE.
At E3, Sony presented the instant classic: “How to share games on PS4”, showing a guy handing his buddy a disc, “Step 1: Share the game”, and his buddy saying “Thanks!”. The meaning and context was instantly understood: People currently invested in PlayStation can buy a PS4, assured that there WILL be a used games market, that they CAN share games, and that they DON’T have to have an internet connection.
After the PS4 announcement, Microsoft backpedaled, announcing that it had decided “based on community feedback” to allow sharing games (on disc), and would NOT require an always-on internet connection.
The reality is that Microsoft wasn’t interested in community feedback. They responded to a competitor. Microsoft has announced that “an initial update” will be required via the internet, and subsequent internet connectivity is not required. This clearly implies that the hardware was already being manufactured and stockpiled, and included a “pre-announcement” image (the always-on, no-sharing image).
What’s the point?
The point is that with both Windows 8 and X-Box ONE, there was significant negative community feedback pre-release. At the desktop, this was ignored due to lack of competition, while it took a competitor’s announcement to sway Microsoft from their X-Box ONE position.
Once again, “innovative” design was well outside what the market wanted. Both of these products were developed in a vacuum (perhaps a vacuum too inclusive of encouragement for the Emperor and his new wardrobe), and both were disasters. It has yet to be determined if Microsoft’s last-minute shift will save X-Box ONE.
The bigger issue is that Microsoft has forgotten why it’s successful. Microsoft dominates the desktop today, not because they are good at the desktop, but because people use networks, and Microsoft made it easy for people to use networks. 20 years ago, you had to know some kludgy command lines in order to create users, set up shared folders, or assign permissions — or even to play a “networked” LAN game. Microsoft brought “Click and Drag” to all of that, and put “network administration” in the hands of everyone. Now, their position is that, since everyone uses Windows, they can do whatever they want with it. That mentality sets them up for a market disruption. Windows is ripe to be wiped off the map by something MORE relevant. There’s no “killer formula” yet — Android / tablet isn’t comprehensive, and Linux is still just a collection of kludges, but when someone figures out “what works better than Windows”, Windows will become irrelevant.
Likewise, Microsoft’s game console market share is based on a position that originally promoted an “open” platform, denouncing its competitors for proprietary formats, high game prices, and too much DRM. Now, their position caters to the game industry instead of its user base.
Lesson #1: Sell people what they want, or become irrelevant.
As a developer, manufacturer, and vendor, you absolutely CAN bring innovation to the market, but the ultimate sin is to unilaterally thrust your vision on to the user base. Building a bridge by maintaining “common” functionality from previous releases helps deliver your innovation without alienating the community that helped build your success. Meanwhile, the pundits and early adopters can benefit from the new features and functionality.
Lesson #2: Competition promotes positive innovation.
When consumers have a choice, you have to cater to their demands. Without a choice, your market share is a balloon waiting to pop — as soon as there is a viable alternative, your user base will abandon you for the options and features THEY want.