The Microsoft Corporation has seemingly lost their collective minds. Over the last couple years, they have introduced two major new products in Windows 8 and the Xbox One. Both of these products were met with fierce consumer backlash. What in the world is going on over there?
There was a time when Microsoft had their finger on the pulse of the American electronic technology consumer. Love it or hate it; the Windows operating system was adopted by the majority of commercial business and private consumers to run their computers. Microsoft Office Suite is the most widely used business software in the world. So, there was a time when Microsoft knew what they were doing.
That doesn’t appear to be the case anymore. Windows 8 was met with disdain by a large number of consumers. A lot of consumers hate the Windows 8 live tile system, the lack of being able to boot directly to the familiar desktop, the lack of a start button and confusing menus (or lack of familiar menus). Many people who bought a computer or laptop with Windows 8 have downgraded the operating system back to Windows 7.
Likewise, when Microsoft revealed the first details of the upcoming Xbox One gaming console, there was a consumer backlash unlike anything I have ever seen concerning the launch of a new console. Consumers responded with utter outrage. They hated that the console always had to be connected to the internet in order to function, that games were now digital downloads rather than disk based, that the Kinect (that was previously an optional device) was mandatory and that used games would be severely limited on the console.
The combination of these two massive public relation nightmares resulted in Microsoft executives losing jobs and entire divisions being restructured. How could such a large and successful company get things so wrong? What the bleep is wrong with Microsoft?
Less than two months after the launch of Windows 8, Steven Sinofsky was sent packing. As the president of the Windows division of Microsoft, Sinofsky was the face of Windows 8. He was the person most responsible for the failure of Windows 8 and the subsequent lack of consumer enthusiasm for the Windows Surface Tablet.
In the wake of his departure, Microsoft went into full backtrack and apologize mode. They promised an upcoming update (Windows 8.1) that will fix many of issues consumers complained about (including bringing back the start button). After defending the operating system for months, suddenly Microsoft decided to give in to consumer demand and make Windows 8 some sort of bastardized version of Windows 7 and a touch based tablet operating system.
The way the launch of Xbox One was handled by Microsoft shockingly mirrors the Windows 8 launch in a creepy “Single White Female” sort of way. In less than two months after the reveal of Xbox One, Don Mattrick (the president of Microsoft’s Interactive Entertainment Business) “left” the company. This departure was followed by a full on repentance and backtrack by the Xbox One team. They reversed policies and changed features they had vehemently defended previously.
So, you have the two biggest product launches for Microsoft in the last fives years ending with consumer backlash, the head of the division responsible for the product leaving the company in disgrace and Microsoft reversing policy and scrambling to give consumers what the initially wanted. While the Coca-Cola Company will forever be known for the worst product launch in history with “New Coke”, they only made the mistake once. How does a company like Microsoft make the same mistake twice?
The answer is found in the corporate culture at Microsoft. Once Bill Gates took on a less active role in the company to focus more on philanthropy and charity, the reigns of the company were handed over to a group of hyper educated, type A personality, yuppie executives. You know the type. Chances are you have probably worked for one.
This particular type of executive was captured brilliantly in the character of Bill Lumbergh in the movie “Office Space”. They wear expensive two-tone dress shirts with French cuffs, drive hybrids with vanity plates and believe they are great motivators. Their personal sense of self-worth comes from their job and competing against other executives in their field. They are usually utterly clueless to the world outside their high-rise corner office and have no idea what they look like and how they sound to the rest of the functional world. One only has to look at the statements and behavior of Microsoft executives following the launch of the Xbox One to understand what is wrong at Microsoft.
The first glimpse into the Microsoft corporate executive culture came when Microsoft creative director Adam Orth decided to take to twitter to address a large part of the consumer base who were complaining about the Xbox One’s requirement that the console must be connected to the internet at all times or games will not function. Orth’s advice to those people was, “Those people should get with the times and get the internet”. He also told consumers to “deal with it” using the hashtag #dealwithit on his next tweet.
This outraged gaming industry insider Manveer Heir who chimed in to explain to Orth that there are many reasons why one might not have or lose an internet connection. Orth responded sarcastically to Heir. Heir’s response was very enlightening and illustrates that even some industry insiders know that certain Microsoft executives have no clue what life is like outside of Silicon Valley. Manveer tweeted, “You’ve lived in LA, SF, Seattle…very connected places…try living in Janesville, WI or Blacksburg, VA”. Now, you would think that someone who has managed to make it through life and procure a highly coveted executive position with the most successful technology company in the world would know how to respond to a statement like that. The correct answer would be somewhere along the lines of “Microsoft is striving to make its products accessible to all of our customers and we value every one of them no matter where they live” or something like that. Orth’s answer wasn’t anything like that. Not even close. Orth tweeted, “Why earth would I live there”.
So, not only did Orth insult any consumer that doesn’t have a constant internet connection, but he also insulted anyone not living in a progressive urban metropolis on the West Coast. This was just a glimpse into the attitude of the corporate culture at Microsoft. It is important to note that Orth was fired shortly after the media picked up on Orth’s twitter tirade. Microsoft released the following statement:
"We apologize for the inappropriate comments made by an employee on Twitter yesterday. This person is not a spokesperson for Microsoft, and his personal views do not reflect the customer centric approach we take to our products or how we would communicate directly with our loyal consumers. We are very sorry if this offended anyone, however we have not made any announcements about our product roadmap, and have no further comment on this matter."
You could argue that Orth’s statements were an anomaly and not representative of the corporate culture of the company. You would be wrong. Orth may not have the tact and eloquence that other executives have, and that was his downfall, but he offered insight into the kind of attitude that is the reason for the disconnect between the consumer and the company.
While not as raw and offensive, Don Mattrick’s statements following the initial reveal of the Xbox One console echoed many of the same sentiments that Orth made on Twitter. Some of Mattrick’s statements sounded as if he believed the only people who have an excuse for not having a constant broadband connection to the internet in 2013 are people who are on nuclear submarines. He then went on to explain that consumers who do not have a constant broadband internet connection required for the Xbox One are welcomed to purchase a ten year old Xbox 360 console instead.
How could such successful people be so clueless to how the rest of the world works? If you look at the products, their features and how they were launched; you begin to see a pattern. Microsoft sees itself as a leader and motivator of consumer demand rather than a supplier. They believe they will guide the consumer into the future, rather than meet the future needs of the consumer.
Windows 8 was designed for devices with a touch screen interface. This is great for smart phones and tablets. Almost all of those devices already use touch screen and Windows 8 simply meets that demand. However, a deeper look will reveal a second motive. Windows 8 is the primary operating system included on new desktop and laptop computers. Within five years, most businesses will be replacing computers running older operating systems with ones that run Windows 8. Windows 8 (in its original design) functions a lot better on touch screen laptops and desktops, but the majority of people using these devices do not own one with a touch screen. Microsoft is using Windows 8 to push consumers into the direction Microsoft wants the future of the industry to go. It is cheaper for Microsoft to have one operating system that works on the three most popular devices (computers, tablets and smart phones). It means they only need one division, one development team and one marketing plan. It makes sense for Microsoft and so Microsoft wants to force consumers to adapt what is best for Microsoft.
If you contrast this to Apple, who has iOS for its iPads and iPhones and MacOS for its desktop and laptop computers, it is easy to see why Apple is considered the future of the industry. Apple understands where the consumer is right now. They provide consumers with the option to stay where they are comfortable while exploring the exciting possibilities of future technologies. Microsoft tries to force the consumer to leap into the future without providing them with the opportunity to explore reasons why the future is a better place.
The Xbox One was the exact same way. They wanted consumers to adopt the digital download and always online model of the future, regardless of whether or not the consumer was comfortable taking that step yet. Rather than provide consumer with a traditional model they are comfortable with and a chance to explore the benefits of a second future model, Microsoft adopts an all or nothing approach. This is why it makes complete sense to Microsoft executives to tell consumers if you don’t have a constant internet connection, you can buy our out of date console or get with the times. Microsoft believes their job is to reign in the future that benefits their company the most whether the consumer wants that future or not. Companies like Apple and Valve have become successful by letting consumers explore the future, see the benefits for themselves and willingly choose to step into that future in order to have those benefits.
Microsoft wants to forgo the burden of proving the benefit of their ideal future of the industry to consumers the way Apple and Valve have. They want to take away the comfort of the current model and push consumers into a new uncertain future. Consumers have proven they will not go quietly if you try to force them. Consumers have brought Microsoft to their knees twice in the last few years. Executives have been fired, policies have been hastily reversed and profits have been lost. Microsoft has spent the majority of their marketing resources apologizing to consumers and trying to prove they have learned their lesson and are now “finally” listening to the consumer and not to their executives. You have two strikes Microsoft. Hopefully you understand that the consumer drives the market, the market doesn’t drive the consumer before your next big launch.