Microsoft should get its head out of the clouds

Microsoft's biggest current mistake is creating the perception that Windows users are going to be dragged into the Cloud whether they want it or not.

Last week's Microsoft InSights column brought me a deluge of email and comments from critics who think I think Microsoft can do no wrong, just because I wouldn't want to live in a world where the company didn't exist. That's hardly the case. So this week I'm going to talk about what I believe is one of Microsoft's biggest current mistakes:

Creating the public perception that Windows users are going to be dragged, kicking and screaming, into the Cloud whether they want it or not.

I don't know whether this perception is even correct. I hope it's not. I hope the obvious enthusiasm for the Cloud has just temporarily obscured their intent to continue to offer software for those who aren't ready to trust their applications and data to the Cloud. But recent actions, statements, and ad campaigns have many longtime Windows loyalists — from consumers to end users to IT pros — feeling a lot of fear, uncertainty, and doubt.

Everybody's in love with the Cloud, but is that really true? Just as wine aficionados who hang out only with other oenophiles who think that everyone appreciates the taste of a 1945 Chateau Mouton Rothschild, those who are enamored with the Cloud tend to hear only the feedback that reinforces their own opinion of it. Is Microsoft's vision clouded when it comes to what a large part of its customer base really wants?

Every time I write about cloud services, my email feedback indicates that many, many people are still afraid of the cloud. And yet, it's a love/hate relationship. They want the benefits of cloud storage (for backup and accessibility to their files no matter where they are). They like the convenience of webmail that lets them send and receive messages from any computer, without having to set up an email client. They enjoy having the ability to stream media to their computers, TVs, and handheld devices. So why do so many people who use these services daily say they're adamantly opposed to the "move to the cloud"?

"You can keep the change"

Some of the kneejerk reactions to any mention of the cloud can be attributed to that interminable human characteristic that has held back progress since the beginning of time: discomfort with change. Even when the changes are completely beneficial, many of us are resistant to learning new things, doing things in a way that's different from how we've always done them before. I think it's telling that when I did a web search for "resistance to," the first suggestion that popped up was "resistance to change." The search on that phrase (enclosed in quotation marks) returned almost a million results. Obviously it's a pretty common problem.

There have been many scholarly studies done on why and how people resist change, and the reasons run the gamut from the fear that their livelihood is being threatened (such as the IT pro who is afraid adoption of cloud computing will render his job obsolete) to laziness (such as the consumer who just doesn't want to learn how to use new technologies).

I think an important factor is the helplessness and resentment that people feel when change is imposed on them without their consent. We've all heard the old joke about how many psychologists it takes to change a light bulb (only one, but the light bulb has to want to change), and while it might not be true of light bulbs, to a large extent it is true of people. Being forced to change involuntarily scares people and/or makes them angry.

And make no mistake about it: cloud computing is bringing big changes already, and those changes are likely to become more dramatic in the future. For those who embrace change, it's an exciting time to be involved with computers and technology; for everyone else, not so much.

I spent a good part of my Labor Day weekend having a discussion with an attorney who just upgraded from Office 2003 to Office 2010 and hates the changes. No amount of showing her how she could still do the same things — often more easily with fewer clicks or keystrokes — could appease her. The old way worked for her, and she wasn't interested in learning something new.

We're hearing that the Cloud is going to change the world of computing. Unfortunately, for many people like my friend, that's not perceived as a good thing.

The communications breakdown

It's not that Microsoft wants to force its customers to do something they don't want to do. In fact, pleasing customers is one of their primary concerns (as it is for any company that wants to be successful). They invest a great deal of money into efforts to discover what customers want and provide it.

Their CPE (Customer and Partner Experience) is a program aimed at increasing customer satisfaction. They welcome and actively solicit feedback on their products. In fact, some would say they do it a bit too aggressively at times; I know I'm often annoyed by those pop-up surveys that seem to always interrupt my TechNet searches when I'm deep in the throes of trying to troubleshoot some problem.

So it's not that they don't care or don't listen, but sometimes I think Microsoft doesn't always listen to the right people. They don't seem to understand that most of the feedback they get during the beta testing of products is from a subset of computer users who aren't necessarily representative of the majority. Beta testers, by their very nature, like trying new things. Most end users don't.

Microsoft also listens closely to their most valued enterprise customers. These are huge companies with lots of resources. Their wants, needs, priorities, and capabilities are different from the many small and mid-sized businesses that make up the rest of the business world.

A case in point: I've heard Microsoft employees say that their feedback shows that "everybody" wants less GUI and more PowerShell. I'm sure those IT folks in the top-tier enterprises do feel that way. Those are people who command high salaries and are extremely technically savvy.

But many of the IT folks in SMBs that I hear from are not asking for more "PowerHell." They're complaining that instead of just adding the command-line capabilities — which would be great — Microsoft seems to be taking away the GUI, bit by bit. I've heard it a number of times: "The graphical interface is the whole reason I became a Windows admin instead of a UNIX guy" and "If they're going to do away with the GUI, we might as well just run UNIX servers."

Cloudy daze

What does that have to do with cloud computing? Aside from the fact that some suspect the GUI is going away because they (the Windows admins) are going away soon, I think this same sort of tunnel vision — listening to or focusing on the feedback from a small subset of customers — is the same thing that's making the company believe "everyone" is eager to rush headlong into the cloud.

They're not. When people see that all the commercials for Microsoft products are about the "cloud," when they hear rumors that "Windows 8 is going to be all about the cloud," when they observe that all Microsoft's top employees seem to have moved into the Cloud services, when they hear that "the only teams with money in their budgets are the cloud-focused ones," they start envisioning a future where Windows resembles the Google Chrome OS — nothing more than a fancy web browser that's almost totally dependent on an Internet connection. And they don't like that idea.

I'm not suggesting that Microsoft abandon their cloud strategy. I'm just saying that they need to keep their feet on the ground while their heads are in the clouds. They need to reassure their customers that the cloud is going to give them more options, not fewer. They need to let the public know that Windows will still be there for you if you want to run applications and store data locally. They need to make their commitment to customers who like and want to keep using their existing products just as clear as their proclamation of being "all in" with the cloud.

A cloud by any other name

I've said this before, but it's been a while, and I think it bears repeating. "Cloud" is a word that carries negative connotations for many people. While Microsoft (along with other SaaS, PaaS, and IaaS providers) is envisioning big, fat, happy white puffs of fluff — the kind angels float on — many other folks equate the term with angry, dark, lightning-filled harbingers of danger and destruction — the kind that spawns tornados, takes lives, and costs tons of money to clean up after.

At this point, we're probably stuck with the terminology, but I think Microsoft should differentiate itself by establishing a new identity for its cloud services and gradually phasing out the use of the word "cloud." I believe that would make it easier for them to win over some of those for whom the word represents possible job loss, fewer choices, loss of privacy, less security, higher cost, and scary changes.

Instead of describing Office 365 as "It's familiar Microsoft Office collaboration and productivity tools delivered through the cloud," why not just say "delivered over the Internet"? Everyone loves the Internet. Instead of "Microsoft private cloud," why not "next generation datacenter"? That doesn't conjure up the fear of a pink slip for IT pros. Instead of "Windows Cloud Operating System," why not call Azure the "Windows Anywhere Platform"?

It will probably never happen, but I think if they listened a little more closely to all the customers, they might realize that all this public display of affection for the Cloud is actually turning a lot of people off and turning them toward the idea of examining alternatives (i.e. Mac or Linux) in anticipation of the day when Windows is a Cloud-only OS.

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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...

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