Thoughts on Microsoft and the tech "press"

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Disclaimer: This post is purely an opinion piece and is not intended as a news article. I am a Microsoft MVP, which means that my viewpoint may be slightly biased towards Microsoft but I try very hard to keep things limited to facts and not wild conjecture or complete “fanboy” biases (one way or the other.) While it may become clear through this post the specific sites and organizations to which I’m referring, I will not directly name any of them unless it’s to use as a reference.

The tech “press” has been awash with “articles” related to Microsoft’s recent announcement that Steve Ballmer will be retiring and stepping down as CEO within 12 months. That’s not exactly what I want to talk about. If you read the sentence again, pay attention to the words that I have in quotation marks. If you were to read this sentence aloud, those words could be spoken using air quotes.

There is a very distinct reason I did this. To me, most of these sites are not really news sites and the information presented is neither news quality nor newsworthy. Instead, they are simply one person’s individual and biased opinion on a topic with little to no research to back up any facts and, more times than not, is a poorly written hodgepodge of thoughts. Why is that a problem? If it were clear that these sites were based on a biased opinion and were not to be considered newsworthy, it might not be. The problem is that these sites present themselves as honest news reporting agencies and the stories presented are often times picked up by larger (and actual) news agencies as if they were factual. To make matters worse, some of these agencies don’t bother to do their own fact checking, assuming that the original author had already done so. In some cases, the original story appears on a site that, at one point, had credibility as a legitimate news agency but now no longer does. The other problem with these sites, and the fact that legitimate news agencies sometimes re-run the stories, is the impact it has on the consumer market.

Let’s be honest. I’m a techie, a geek, whatever you want to call it. I grew up around computers and technology. I work with it every day. It’s how I make my living. I like having the new and shiny gadgets and I understand the inherit risks involved with using technology that is in a beta (or even alpha) release or is still nascent. I understand how this stuff works and I don’t mind. With that in mind, I’m nothing like the average consumer. The average consumer isn’t tech savvy and wants things to “just work”. The average consumer doesn’t have the time (or possibly the desire) to understand the nuances of how a new technology works. (For the record, when I say technology I’m referring to any number of things: a new operating system, a new software product, a new user interface on an existing product, a new piece of hardware, etc.)

So, if the average consumer has neither the time nor the desire to learn these new technologies on their own, what do they do? They look to the news agencies reporting about that product.

Let that sink in for a moment. If the average consumer looks to news sites for information about a product and those news sites are presenting biased, opinionated, and factually inaccurate information, then the consumer is being misled. And misled in a big way. They are making purchasing decisions based on this information. They are talking to others and repeating what they heard or read as truth.

While the reality of the situation probably isn’t as dire as I just painted, it is the truth. How is this different than advertising? Take a look at any of the Apple, Samsung, or Microsoft commercials and you’ll see the same biased information presented to the unassuming consumer. Yes, they’re funny. Yes, they attack the competition (sometimes). Yes, they’re biased. Yes, they inform (sometimes). Yes, they influence consumer purchasing. The difference is the medium and the presentation. To the consumer, these advertisements are just that: advertisements. Most consumers are able to discern the fact that these are advertisements and it is they’re very nature to be biased. News sites aren’t supposed to be biased. (And even when we know they’re biased it isn’t as bad because it’s a news site, after all. Right?)

The logic goes something like this:

News sites are supposed to report the news accurately without bias and with journalistic integrity. This is a news site. Therefore, this information is reported accurately without bias and with journalistic integrity.

The problem is that this isn’t always true. Yes, many news agencies still employ journalistic integrity. Unfortunately, the majority of the sites I’m referring to aren’t really news agencies and therefore don’t employ any journalistic standards at all. (In fact, many seem to have no standards what-so-ever.)

Now, let’s take a look at this “press” as it relates to Microsoft. I’m really only going to focus on the last few years as I think that’s when this problem really became prevalent. (I also want to make one thing very clear. I fully believe this problem is more heavily influenced against Microsoft (in other words, making Microsoft look bad) but I also believe the problem isn’t just limited to Microsoft. For every positive thing someone has to say about Apple or Samsung I can find an equally negative thing someone has to say about the exact same technology.)

When Windows Phone was first launched nearly three years ago (October 2010) it did not do as well as Microsoft would have liked. It was new. It was different. It was late to the market. The tech “press” started reporting that Windows Phone was a failure before it even shipped. Did this influence the average consumer? Most definitely. Were there other factors that led to a poor performance out of the gate? Most definitely. Was the failure of Windows Phone the death knell for Microsoft, as many of these tech “press” sites reported? Most definitely not.

Microsoft also has a clear track record of releasing products at a loss for a number of years. Look at the Xbox. When Xbox was first released, it was going up against some fairly well entrenched competition. Now, it is the top gaming console for 31 consecutive months (that’s 2 years and 7 months). Not bad for a game console that some predicted would fail and would be the end of Microsoft.

Microsoft also has a clear track record of releasing products that are too early (or too buggy, depending on your point of view.) Look at Windows Vista. There were actually a lot of extremely important improvements in Windows Vista, and in a lot of ways it was very successful as a result of those improvements. It was also very different. It was a new user interface. It changed the way we interacted with the operating system. The “press” hated it and as a result, the consumers and enterprises hated it. The press pointed to enterprise adoption rates, which were very low as an indicator that Vista was doomed and that it would doom Microsoft along with it. The truth of the matter is that enterprises are traditionally slow to adopt new operating systems and many had just completed adoption of Windows XP. They weren’t about to go through that process again. Yes, Vista had some major issues that contributed to its lack of success.

Clearly, Microsoft has had successes and failures in the 38 years since it was founded. Some of those have been very quiet and unspectacular; others have been very public and almost meteoric while others have been very slow and steady.

The bottom line here is that Microsoft, as a company, has gone through many different major technological consumer shifts over those (nearly) 4 decades and will, I’m sure, continue to do so over the next 4 decades (and hopefully much longer than that).

The press has called Steve Ballmer “the worst CEO of a large publicly traded company today”. Is that a fair criticism? Probably not. Is Microsoft the overall technology leader in everything? No, it’s not. I don’t think it really ever was and I don’t think it really ever will be.

People have forgotten that many of the things Microsoft is criticized for are a direct result of the anti-trust rulings that forced Microsoft to make (in some cases significant) changes to how it operates and how different pieces of software are bundled together. People tend to forget that Sony, Apple, and Google have all benefited from these changes (in varying ways and times) over the years and that these companies are also doing the same (or similar) things. Microsoft got the proverbial slap on the hand and was forced to change. No one else has, yet. (I say yet because I firmly believe it is coming.)

The integration that people praise Apple for could have also existed within the Microsoft ecosystem if it hadn’t been blocked by court rulings. In fact (and I’ve been saying this for the last 5 years or so), Microsoft is just now starting to pull their ecosystem back together and leverage their strengths to build something remarkable. Yes, there is still a lot to do in order to achieve this, but if you can cut through all of the media and marketing hype and ignore the naysayers and fanboys and read between the lines, you start to see a picture of where Microsoft is headed. Simply take a look at the “modern” (formerly Metro) user interface that started on Windows Phone. When it was first released, it was widely criticized for being too flat or too boxy (or both). Now, Apple is flattening iOS. Websites are adopting a cleaner, simpler look. Street signs and ATM machines are being redesigned to be “boxy”. As Dudley Moore’s character in the film Crazy People said, “Volvo — they’re boxy but they’re good.” The design trend is catching on and people are realizing the power a simple user interface actually has.

A great personal example of this is my 5 year old son. He has been playing games on my Windows Phone since he was 2. At that age, he needed help understanding how to manipulate the user interface, not because it was difficult but because he was 2. Now that he’s 5, he is able to work my phone, my Surface RT tablet and my Xbox 360 because the experience is (mostly) consistent. When I first turned on my Surface RT, he immediately walked up to it and started swiping to see what was available. It was natural to him. I see him try and pick a Thomas the Train movie out on Netflix on the Xbox 360 and he performs a virtual swipe left or right. Sometimes the Kinect picks him up, sometimes it doesn’t. Again, he’s 5 (and only about 3 1/2 feet tall). It’s not the user interface that’s causing problems; it’s a first-generation Kinect sensor that has a hard time recognizing him because he’s so small. I watch him play on my phone and when he wants to end a game, he tries to swipe down (which is the gesture for closing an app on Windows 8/Windows RT). I see him get annoyed because it doesn’t work. He wants it to work the same way across all of his devices.

My point to this is that Microsoft is starting to pull together all of the disparate devices that we, as consumers, use in our everyday life. In one way or another, I have the same user experience and the same core operating system on all of my devices: tablets, desktops, laptops, mobile and game console. Yes, there are differences. Yes, there are incompatibilities. Yes, there are inconsistencies. Yes, I’m excited to see the level of integration between my devices, even in this nascent stage. When Windows 8.1 and Xbox One are released later this year (and Windows Phone 8.1 late this year or early next year) we will be one step closer as well.

Remember, Microsoft is a technology company and has, traditionally, done a very poor job at marketing that technology. (This is thankfully starting to change.) As a technology company, the things that are important are not always the same as what’s important to a consumer. In fact, most consumers don’t actually care about those things.

A perfect example for this is the fact that Microsoft actually has the same kernel OS running on PCs, mobile devices and game consoles with Windows 8, Windows Phone 8 and Xbox One. As a technology company this is huge. It means fewer product branches to maintain and when improvements and fixes are implemented it’s done in one place and all devices get it. As a developer, this is also huge as it means, effectively, the same thing. Yes, there are issues right now. It’s not a complete story from a developer perspective.

Does the average consumer care about this at all? Absolutely not. They do care about the fact that they can run Skype on all of these devices. They care about the fact that they can buy a game one time and be able to install it on all these devices. (We’re not there yet, but it’s getting close. You can already do this across all of your Windows 8/Windows RT devices, but not yet across phone and game console.) Are consumers confused by the difference between Windows 8 and Windows RT? Absolutely. Will Windows RT and Windows Phone actually become a single OS? Most likely. (Remember, they both run only on ARM based architectures so it’s not much of a stretch to see that happen.)

Does Microsoft need to provide a better and clearer message to consumers about this integration? Absolutely.

Is the tech “press” and the lack of journalistic integrity partly to blame for the consumers lack of faith in Microsoft? Absolutely. In fact, that’s probably (and this is completely my opinion) one of the reasons for Steve’s early departure.

Is Microsoft doomed to failure? Almost certainly not. (I can’t say with 100% confidence as you never know what might happen, but I can say it with 99% confidence.) Let’s be clear about one thing. Microsoft is multi-billion dollar company. According to the latest SEC filing (July 30, 2013) Microsoft had $77.0B in cash, cash equivalents, and short-term investments as of June 30, 2013 compared to $63.0B as of June 30, 2012. Microsoft has multiple business divisions, all of which make money (some are more profitable than others) and all of which contribute to the overall financial health of the company (some more than others).

Was Steve Ballmer the “worst CEO” for Microsoft? Absolutely not. Yes, he made mistakes but he also helped drive some huge successes as well. Would Microsoft be a different company if someone else had been at the helm for the last 12 years? Possibly, but I don’t think it would be in such a strong position as it is now to bring all of their technology together.

I do think that as part of the transition to a new CEO Microsoft needs to bring back the position of Chief Software Architect. In the last 12 years, that is a role which Microsoft no longer had and I think some of the missteps over that time period would have been avoided had there been someone in that role.

So, now that we’ve reached the end of this post. Is there a call to action? There most definitely is.

I think all of the technical “press” needs to either stop pretending to be press and start employing unbiased reporting and journalistic integrity or stop representing themself as press. If you want to run opinion pieces, go ahead…as long as it’s clear that it’s an opinion piece.

I think the legitimate news agencies need to stop assuming anything that gets reported on the internet that relates to technology is accurate and has been fact checked. If they want to re-run the story and it’s been independently verified, that’s fine.

I think that we, as techie “consumers”, need to do a better job at informing and educating. Yes, I’m a Microsoft MVP which means that I’m going to prefer Microsoft technologies over anything else. What it also means is that if it’s not the right tool for the job, I’m not going to recommend it. (If it’s a competing product that’s better I have no problem saying so.)