Windows

How can Microsoft clean up its bad reputation?

Whether you are an individual or a multinational corporation, a bad reputation can destroy any chance of success. Deb Shinder has some suggestions for Microsoft's redemption.

No matter how good you are at what you do, a bad reputation can destroy your chance for success. That's as true of a multinational company as it is of an individual. Microsoft has introduced some killer products and services lately, but -- except for a few notable exceptions such as Windows 7 and Kinect -- adoption has been slow. How much does the company's bad reputation have to do with that, and is there anything they can do about it?

By all logic, Microsoft should still be the dominant force in the tech world today. The company was first to market with a sophisticated smartphone (Windows Mobile), long before Apple or Google had an entry in that market. They introduced the idea of the tablet form factor (Windows XP Tablet PC Edition) way back in 2002 when the Apple iPad wasn't even a glimmer in Steve Jobs's eye. They were all about convergence of home computing and home entertainment (Windows XP Media Center Edition) long before anyone ever heard of Apple TV or Google TV. So, with all that experience, why don't they have the number one products in those categories?

There are plenty of opinions on that, with some seeing it as divine retribution for the company's evil, monopolistic nature and others attributing it to a dysfunctional corporate culture that fosters the wrong kind of internal competition. Some think it's because they're trying too hard to be like Apple. Others believe they're trying too hard to be all things to all people. Whatever the answer (and it's probably not a single answer), it's clear that the company suffers from a bad reputation. Its past -- both recent and distance -- haunts it. Maybe it's time to make a clean break and start over.

Holding a grudge

They say you never get a second chance to make a first impression, and unfortunately, the first impression many of today's computer users have of Microsoft isn't a good one. In fact, many associate the company with illegal or at least unethical business practices, thanks to the antitrust case that often appeared in the headlines in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The United States v. Microsoft: the very style of the case invokes an image of the entire country on one side and a corporate behemoth bent on world domination on the other.

But for the average person on the street, it's not really about a civil lawsuit. When you get right down to it, most people care less about a company violating some obscure, complex government regulations than about how its products impact their own lives. If they've had bad experiences there, they tend to take it personally. And unfortunately, most of us have spent some time, at some point in our lives, cursing Windows or Office.

I'm constantly surprised by how many people base their opinions of Microsoft technologies on products from years ago. They talk about how Windows crashes several times a day, how you have to reboot every time you install a program, or how IE is so much less secure than other web browsers. All these are things that were true in the past, but today? Not so much. Are all these folks stuck in a time warp, using ancient versions? Or have they just not bothered to notice the differences?

Even more surprising, it's not just home users who are stuck in this "Windows is slow, unstable, and insecure" mind-set. I hear it all the time from IT pros who should know better.

The Vista debacle

If you had to pick one product that did the most damage to Microsoft's reputation in recent years, it would have to be Windows Vista. The irony is that Vista wasn't really a bad operating system -- especially after the fixes in service pack 1. Mostly it was a good but resource-hungry OS that got installed on a lot of computers with hardware that wasn't up to running it.

Had this been a case of users buying the box and installing it on low-powered systems, we might be able to give Microsoft a pass. But when people bought computers that came with Vista preinstalled, and it ran at a snail's pace unless you turned off Aero (the eye candy of which was one of the big reasons for upgrading to Vista in the first place), you could bet that there were going to be a lot of unhappy campers. And performance wasn't the only issue. In another twist of irony, User Account Control (UAC), which was a response to past complaints that Windows wasn't secure enough, was so "in your face" that many users simply turned it off and most of those who didn't complained bitterly about it.

The dissatisfaction was magnified when Apple took advantage of Vista's PR nightmare by producing a series of commercials poking fun at the Microsoft OS that went from clever and cute to downright mean-spirited. Computer users avoided Vista in droves, and many of those who bought computers with it installed quickly downgraded to XP.

Meanwhile, many of those who had bad experiences with Vista started investigating alternatives such as OS X and Linux. There is probably no way to accurately estimate how much money Microsoft lost because of the Vista debacle, but some customer satisfaction surveys showed that the company lost points during Vista's tenure.

Missed boats

In the wake of Vista, Microsoft badly needed a winner, and they got one with Windows 7. Even before it hit the shelves, Amazon UK announced that Windows 7 was the best-selling, pre-order product of all time, even selling more copies than the Harry Potter book that was out at the same time. By March 2010, it had been declared the best-selling operating system in history. Microsoft should have been on the way back to the top of the heap. So what happened?

Well, it seems that just as Microsoft was solidly reinstating its position in the desktop OS space, industry focus was moving away from the desktop. Just six months after Windows 7 came out in October 2009, Apple released the first iPad in April 2010. Suddenly it was all about tablets, and despite having pushed the concept for years, Microsoft didn't have a viable competitor in that market (and still doesn't, a year and a half later).

Having already missed the boat in the smartphone market by letting the iPhone sneak up on them and take the world by storm, Microsoft found itself the recipient of a one-two punch when the iPad quickly sold out and lured a lot of people who had never before owned an Apple product into the fold.

The killing floor

Even though Apple, and then Google with Android, got out ahead in the smartphone and tablet game, Microsoft didn't give up. In fact, they have fired back with some pretty good products; Windows Phone 7 got some great reviews  despite poor sales (which can be attributed to a number of different factors, including reports that sales personnel at the wireless carriers' retail stores are actively discouraging customers from buying Windows phones). Reaction to the first demo of Windows 8, designed to run on ARM-based devices, was mostly positive.

However, the company has done itself a disservice by killing off so many projects and products without really giving them a chance. Those who purchased songs through MSN music, only to have it discontinued and the DRM servers deactivated just four years after it began, were understandably upset.

Those who bought the Kin, to see it yanked after less than two months on the market, felt betrayed (not to mention the harm done to Microsoft's relationship with Verizon Wireless). Those who were excited over the Courier dual-screen tablet developed by Microsoft research and then saw it dropped like a hot potato were disappointed. Those who deployed Essential Business Server (EBS) and found themselves with a discontinued product two years later were angry. Those who have invested in TMG and are now hearing rumors of its impending demise are anxious and worried.

Microsoft is developing a reputation of unreliability when it comes to the longevity of their products. It's the same thing I mentioned in last week's column, in relation to Google+ and why people may not trust it to still be around a year or two from now. The difference is that while Google has introduced and then killed off (or just failed to promote and support) a lot of products, most of them were free services. People didn't put their money into them, so they take the discontinuance less personally.

Overcoming a bad reputation

Courtesy of last.fm

How does a person -- or a gargantuan international corporation -- overcome a bad reputation? Not by hiring a PR firm. Words are nice, but actions matter more, and a change in how you're perceived by the public starts with a change in behavior. Whether or not the reputation is deserved, it takes consistent action to counteract it. Show, don't tell.

Microsoft has taken some steps toward correcting its bad rep already. They've gone a long way in erasing the stigma of Vista by making Windows 7 the most stable and secure Windows ever. They've improved performance and listened to customers and addressed many of the complaints that caused users to shun Vista. They've shown some real innovation in the development of Windows Phone 7 and Windows 8. Making good products is important, but it's not enough.

My take

I think now Microsoft needs to put the same amount of effort that they put into improving the reliability of Windows 7 into convincing the public that when they introduce a new product or service, they're "all in" for the long haul. They need to make us believe that the cool new technology they show us today won't disappear in six months. In other words, just like a cheating spouse or a friend who's lied to us or a family member who let us down, they need to regain our trust. That can't be done overnight, but it can be done.

I can't believe I'm the only one who's tired of today's "throw a bunch of stuff against the wall and see what sticks" approach to new product marketing. Companies are too quick to abandon anything that doesn't catch on immediately. And it extends far beyond the tech industry.

TV shows with plenty of potential are cancelled after half a season if they're not instant hits. Marriages end six months after the wedding because "happily ever after" turns out to include a few bumps in the road. Puppies and kittens are abandoned at a shelter because they couldn't be trained to their owners' idea of perfection in two weeks.

It's a societal problem, but Microsoft could go against the grain by being more selective about the products and services they introduce and making a real, long-term commitment to those they do choose to release. A key element in getting past a bad reputation is to replace it with a reputation for treating others well. In the case of a company like Microsoft, that means your customers, your partners, your employees, even your competitors.

That advice might not be easy to take in a cut-throat business environment, and we all know the "old dog, new tricks" syndrome can be tough to overcome. Can they do it? Will they do it? They might not have a choice if they want to survive and thrive.

Also read:

About

Debra Littlejohn Shinder, MCSE, MVP is a technology consultant, trainer, and writer who has authored a number of books on computer operating systems, networking, and security. Deb is a tech editor, developmental editor, and contributor to over 20 add...

35 comments
Gis Bun
Gis Bun

Granted that Vista wasn't the greatest but it [on its own] got a bad reputation because of the initial lack of software, old software would work on it, 64-bit support, etc. But Vista with SP2 is probably almost rock solid as you can get. As far as Microsoft missing the tablet boat, well, they - after all - make just the OS. They didn't get into the computer hardware business except for mice, keyboards and webcams [and briefly with networking]. Tablets existed before iPad, it's the manufacturers who goofed badly. But compared to other software vendors [Google, Apple, Oracle, ...] I think Microsoft is doing a way better job in securing their products. Yes. Microsoft missed the boat [or got in too late] on the smartphone business and probably should of dumped it. At least it's not as bad a companies that joinerd [for example] the tablet business such as RIM, Viewsonic and others but never anything remotely ressembling a table or a PC before [rumor has it RIM will dump the Playbook, BTW.] If you want to look at a bad reputation look at Google with the buggy Chrome browser [how many releases since it came out?], security problems with Android [makes me ALMOST want to by an iPhone for my next smartphone] and how many free web apps that died over the year [two social networks with a possible third with Google+], a competitor to YouTube, ... Oh those who use the "word" M$ are showing their true colors. Anti-Microsoft.

haikalnashuha
haikalnashuha

I have been developing in Windows environment for years and just recently moved into Linux & Unix development. All I can say, Windows will get slow as more and more apps you install in the machine. Thanks to the registry for that. However, the same thing will not occur in Linux & Unix environment. I can sleep better at nights knowing that my Linux machine hardly crashes and more consistent than the Windows. Yes developing in Linux sucks as the tools you have is nowhere as close as Visual Studios but again, the stability is the key here. Plus, with introduction of Android, developers are flocking into Java development ,which again, can be developed in Linux. If Windows is to appeal me again (I am talking about my personal experience here) they need to review how their OS works and make it more stable, more secure, more consistent and better performance.

Spitfire_Sysop
Spitfire_Sysop

You definately touched on this multiple times. I think that M$ has tried to put it's fingers in too many pies. Instead of trying to make everything I think they should fund new companies to take on new products. For example, let's take the Zune. The Zune could be made by a completely different company with different management. You could actually have customer support (Something that M$ has never done). The money could come from M$ but then they need to walk away. I am talking about spin-offs. M$ should stick to Windows and focus 100% on it. Spin off every other division in to different companies and let them sink or swim. This will allow for the diversity required to maintain and support a larger number of products. It would also take the M$ name off of other ventures with all the benefits that could bring.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

It's those of us who have no choice but to buy their products and services who most dislike them...

Mark W. Kaelin
Mark W. Kaelin

Do you think Microsoft deserves its bad reputation or is the bad image a result of competitors' propaganda? Either way, what could the company do that would change your impression of it in a positive way? What change(s) would make you more likely to buy and/or use their products and services?

Papa_Bill
Papa_Bill

But as for identifying my "true colors", Microsoft alone has influenced my "OS-tics". Without beating a dead horse, the balance of facts cannot be ignored except by those to whom facts are embarrassing. I use WIN 7 & XP and Ubuntu pretty much equally and find all have their strengths and weaknesses, most of which I have mentioned before. I have no lip service for my "favorites" and see no future in repeating my gripes to those who I know will turn a deaf ear.

simplifried
simplifried

Gis, I have to confess, I am unabashedly anti Microsoft, for reasons mentioned in a post below, however, I understand as well as anyone the contribution to personal computing that they have made. What is galling to those of us finding ourselves balanced on the edge of that razor blade, is that it is so readily apparent that it could all be done better for the user.

GreyTech
GreyTech

Compare Ubuntu 11.04 with 10.10. 11.04 is like a dog on old hardware, can't run unity without a modern GPU, takes longer than W7 to boot. Is it the way of the world or are Linux developers finding the same as Windows developers did 10 years ago. Bloat moves faster than new hardware.

Fnshman
Fnshman

I guess you haven't been developing in linux recently. I have been "playing around" in linux since Red Hat 2. The latest Kernel won't run on my 2 year laptop, and I have tried different distros. Gnome three doesn't work at all, and after almost ten years of 64bit processors, they still can't get the 64bit OS working right. My realtek wireless has never worked, and the drivers are still in "staging" after almost two years. AND I haven't heard a lot of good things about kernel3.

wizard57m-cnet
wizard57m-cnet

Hmmm...let's see...my multi-booting DOS/Win3X/Win95 hasn't crashed in some 12 years now. My Slackware box? No crash there either. My WinXP box...well, not since I quit letting my kids play games that were known to cause problems with nVidia video cards, not a crash in 2 years...so, must be the Win7 NB!! Well, shucks...not a single solitary crash on it either. Guess I can continue to sleep well at night! ps...if your computer is crashing, it probably is NOT the operating system itself, rather it is probably some software installed by the IATKB.

Gis Bun
Gis Bun

Right away some Linux zealot admiring Linux in a blog that barely mentions Linux. We don't care. Oh "more secure"? Ever look at the SANS newsletter? Windows 7 is stable. Unsure how you define "consistent".

TG2
TG2

Its not just the forced purchase ... but the near complete loss of productivity that came about by microsoft changing well known and established functions, keystrokes, and access methods. Sure everyone could use 2 or 3 ways to access some function or feature in both the OS and Office suites ... but just like CTRL C is copy .. you shouldn't be changing OTHER things for no valid reasons. Windows 95 through XP ... I right click a blank area of the desk top and do "Properties" ... something I've been doing for what... 15 years? and now no longer does "properties" link to the same tabs and options with 7 and vista as it did previously. Change your screen resolution ... you can't... you have to access a completely different way ... Office .. that F**king ribbon bar.. its fine that some people like it, find it functional for *them* but to completely destroy your user base .. to remove from the well established business functionality, your key software suite, and change all the key combinations, not give the users a *choice* of menuing system, or to give them transitional menus.. you cut everyone off. Sure, with office, new users who had NEVER BEFORE SEEN office were able to get some things done ... but those that knew their function keys, knew their ALT+Key menu selections, and didn't have to take their hands off the keyboard were now stuck grabbing the mouse, and cursoring through several menus trying to find what they had previously known how to do.. And that's nothing for the ribbon's complete backwards nature when it came to operating with Laptops that have limited screen realestate ... and before you f**king morons come back with your usual "hide the ribbon bar" doing so means having YET ONE MORE CLICK to make EVEN BEFORE you can figure out where your previous menu item is.. The fact that before Vista ... users had been using an OS that was similar in access methods for better than 10 years, is one of those key mistakes microsoft made in "redesign" ... you don't throw away EVERYTHING you learned before just to start new.. not with an OS, not with a product base that has had 90% market saturation for more than a decade .... you wouldn't suddenly go in and swap the gas pedal for the brake pedal in a car model ... or move the turn signal selector to the opposite side of the steering column.. you don't change key menu functions without good reason, and microsoft NEVER had a good reason.. THAT pissed off just as many if not more people than those required to purchase the product to keep up with the Jones's.

Shadeburst
Shadeburst

Windows still boots extremely slowly. Compare that to a Mac which is ready to rock 'n roll in under a minute. MS dumbed down Office with the Ribbon. High-productivity users (like, ahem, myself) who use a lot of features, preferred the old toolbars which you could put anywhere on the screen. We also prefer keyboard shortcuts which reduce delays in moving your hand from keyboard to mouse and back again. The last version of Access I saw was 2003, so I don't know if this has been addressed. I would have loved a full scripting language with "go" statements. Even so, MS Access beat the Open Office alternative easily.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

Ubuntu might be linux if you squint real hard, Linux is not Ubuntu though, all their protestations to the contrary mind. That's like comparing a full crapware out of teh box vendor install, with the carefully tuned one professionals can come up with.

Alpha_Dog
Alpha_Dog

...regardless if you run Windows or Linux relates to driver issues. Usually the video driver.

Papa_Bill
Papa_Bill

But nothing running inside it is. Have ya noticed?

RipVan
RipVan

Your rants and defensiveness show you to be the only zealot. You should leave that bit of commentary out of your diatribe next time.

haikalnashuha
haikalnashuha

I was stating purely based on my experience. You want inconsistency in Windows 7? Sure, me and my colleagues stuck at "Windows is updating..bla bla" for 24 hours without any real progress due to updating our Windows 7 via wireless. Now I am no packet guru but we expect that the update went corrupted due to unstable wireless connection. Not to mention most of the updates require restart. Do you have experience using Linux as development environment? Only major update or update that involves kernel patching require restart. The rest is just simple, work out of the box. Linux is no God, it shares its own weaknesses but again, as a development environment it performs well. Of course you have to be picky in selecting your hardware for Linux/Unix but the point is, if and only if Windows can achieve the same robustness as Linux, then I would come back for it.

Joe_Wulf
Joe_Wulf

You highlight a number of essential issues that assesses Micro$loth very accurately. Thank you for your time and wisdom.

GreyTech
GreyTech

Having started in computing before CP/M and DOS the last 30 years have been exciting and forever changing. Change is inevitable and what comes out of change is mostly improvement. I would not like to be driving a Model-T on today's highways any more than I would like to be still using PC-DOS 2.01 first released on the IBM XT in 1981. Office 2010 is brilliant compared with Office 97 as was Vista compared with Windows 3.11, W7 is better than Vista. By the way Ford did change the pedals after the Model-T.

Papa_Bill
Papa_Bill

TR needs to develop a filter to screen out Win-Vs.-Linux crap. And the Mac argument is now started. No, please, no-o-o!

rfolden
rfolden

2011: Year of the GNU/Linux Desktop!

Joe_Wulf
Joe_Wulf

Linux and Unix is VERY much alive and well. When you really look around, you'll find Linux and Unix are at the heart of significant volumes of enterprises today. Think about this... could Google ever possibly be successful had they wasted ANY time with Windoze as their server environment? Please!!!

Jeff Dickey
Jeff Dickey

The purple variety is especially famous. I've been in this industry for over thirty years and I've never seen the degree of calcified dogma that's posing as fact these days. Granted, Win7 IS the best Windows version since NT 3.51. It would be nice if we could compare it favorably against, you know, its current competition?

jfreedle2
jfreedle2

Windows already is more stable and functional than any distribution of Linux\UNIX. If I were to downgrade my experience, I would shift to Macintosh before I would go all the way down to Linux\UNIX.

grayknight
grayknight

Of all the Windows 7 BSODs they all contained enough information to figure out what failed. It was always a driver/hardware issue.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

Stopping BSODs in windows would be a huge effort. At the BSOD point, it's so far past the original error it had no idea what went wrong and how far in to it's various sub-systems the error has proliferated, that it can't come up with any restart strategy except reboot. The dumps may have useful information, but you'd need the code and a lot of patience to find out. When you get there it will tell you that some deep level function wasn't expecting 0 as in an input or siome such, how it got there, educated guess time. Classic problem of a language with no exceptions (or one with and incompetent design (swallowing). Lot of old code still in Win 7, not as much as there was in Vista, so they are getting better, but still a significant percentage, and it stands to reason the deeper and ore common the less likely it is they risked changing it. Real technical debt. Happens "everywhere", MS's are just more noticeable due to popularity. Don't expect it to go away anytime soon, as there is evidence for exception swallowing in much more recent code.

pbug56
pbug56

Unfortunately, Win 7 is just as capable of BSOD's as earlier versions of Windoze. And it still gives you little or no viable information on what failed. Yes, it is not as unstable, but by now MS should have found a way to trap failures, stop something, restart and give proper error messages rather then crashing. There is nothing like finding your pc bsod'd and that the dumps have no useful information on what caused it. Except this happening frequently.

winntec
winntec

As the article stated I think you're reflecting the way it used to be. I do internet marketing - under Windows 7 I have never had a BSOD, Vista was a disaster, XP grew into a good product. I did Unix for many years, love it but sorry even Ubuntu often needs trips to the root it's not for most folk. I think this article summed Msoft up really well, there's been a ton of disasters but if you look at W7 it's a good solid product, yes it took too long to get this way. As to updates requiring restarts, very few and far between, so I'm not sure why your environment, as you report it, needs this mine does not

dogknees
dogknees

"Of course you have to be picky in selecting your hardware for Linux/Unix but the point is, if and only if Windows can achieve the same robustness as Linux, then I would come back for it." If only Linux would could work with the same range of hardware it might be real contender and I might use it.

Gis Bun
Gis Bun

"Now I am no packet guru but we expect that the update went corrupted due to unstable wireless connection." - Sound like either a driver issue or hardware. You can't blame Microsoft. They don't make drivers - just include them in the OS - and they surely can't be blamed on a wireless connection. That said, I would never trust a wireless connection to do any mahjor install. As for Linux [and for that matter Unix], yes I used them off and on for the last 15 years or so. Fedora, OpenSUSE, Ubuntu, ... Yes, you rarely have to reboot. Things have improved a lot when it comes to updating but I remember even to install something as simple as Adobe Flash was a pain.

Jeff Dickey
Jeff Dickey

One of the most effective advertisements I ever saw for a software-development group went something like "We are committed to continuous, reliable improvement rather than constant change." Would that Microsoft took such a view.

Papa_Bill
Papa_Bill

Ford adopted a standard being adopted by every other auto maker. Gas pedal, brake, clutch...steering wheel. Dashboards varied, and still do today. But If they changed to a lawn-mower-type Go/Stop/Clutch system every year, there would be more than a few complaints...and wrecks. MS wants to make changes for the sake of change, without regard for users' convenience. People say "change is good". No. IMPROVEMENT is good. Just "change" could be decay, paradigm shift, fade, Obama, anything. Change is rampant. Improvement is rare.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

and that is good. That a change is good becasue it's a change, iffy propostion at best, a guy who's been around the block as many times as I have should know that. MS have two sorts of upgrade They change the wrapper, so people will think the turd inside has changed. e.g. 98 to ME Or they go for a complete game changer, but present it as a simple step forward like VB6 to VB.Net. They are getting better I'll admit, I peresonaly don't think it's through realising they were c*nts for along time.