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

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: