How Microsoft Lost it’s Cool (with Consumers)

Some would argue that Microsoft was never a cool company, but I dispute that: Just think back to October 2015, where Panos Panay took to the stage, to deliver a One-Windows reality that none of us expected; that spanned awesome Surface devices, Xbox, a wearable in the Microsoft Band, oh… and the HoloLens. There wasn’t a tech news site on the planet that wasn’t gushing over the ‘new’ Microsoft and their spectacular new devices. Even if rarely at other times, there was no denying that in that moment, Microsoft was doing some amazing things, and was doing some pretty cool things.

Once the techs and tech media picked their jaws from the floor, we suddenly found ourselves with a new release of Windows 10, which included some great new features and announcements; We had Groove tackling Apple Music and Google Music, but the added benefit of integration into Xbox games and OneDrive for music storage; We had the Band 2 taking on Fitbit and beating Apple Watch to market; We had cool new Lumia phones, which included the amazing Continuum and Windows Hello technology; We had the Surface Pro, taking on the MacBook Air and cramming insane amounts of power into a thin-and-light package; And then… we had HoloLens, a completely new take on augmented reality (AR) that blew everyone’s mind. At that moment, only the most passionate and strong-willed Microsoft-haters could suggest that lineup wasn’t cool. But, what happened?

Well, in typical Microsoft fashion, it appears that they: Promised the world; then failed to deliver products and services outside the United States; then needlessly rebooted solutions so that new versions had less features than older versions; then failed to deliver on the promises, or actually ship the bits needed to make these things work. As far as I can tell, this wasn’t due to lack of interest, or market conditions, or even supply issues. No, it all came down to Microsoft not believing in themselves, not believing in their consumer strategy, and ultimately shot themselves in the foot… again.

What went wrong with Windows? There were a few large cracks that quickly appeared after the buzz and hype, and these really took the shine of what looked to be an exciting release.

  • Firstly, the promise of Windows 10, and the refreshed “made by me” campaign, quickly turned bad. The community became more and more disillusioned with the release, as Microsoft seemed to prioritise the features and apps they were excited about, and seemingly ignored the Feedback Hub suggestions that had significant numbers of up-votes. Unfortunately, this led customers to believe Microsoft was heading back to the bad old Windows 8 days, where it was a case of “here’s what you’ll be getting, have any suggestions for improvements?”. Ouch.
  • It then came out, that some of the more impressive demonstrations at the even where faked, with no actual code being anywhere near ready, and none of the fancy user interface designs being even close to reality. Then, what was eventually released – if it was released at all – was nowhere near what was shown in terms of functionality. The over-promise, under-deliver, was real.
  • And if the failure to deliver wasn’t already bad enough for Microsoft with regards to Windows 10 adoption, the steadily-climbing install numbers then screeched to a halt after rumours of potential privacy issues surfaced. Of course, in typical Microsoft fashion, instead of quickly trying to address these issues and put minds at ease, Microsoft stayed quiet while their army of lawyers and PR representatives formulated generic non-answers for the masses. Unfortunately, when Microsoft did come out with explanations, it was a case of too little, too late, and their silence was seen as an admission of guilt. Trust was lost, and still hasn’t returned.
  • But it doesn’t even end there. No, despite Microsoft’s big talk about making End User License Agreements (EULAs) easier to read and understand, they continued releasing the very generalised, legal-speak, versions for Windows, Xbox, and other services, and didn’t explain any of the “why we are doing this”… which just allowed these privacy and security issues to continue getting media attention and mindshare. People not only stopped adopting Windows 10, but started migrating back to previous versions such as Windows 7. That has to hurt.

What went wrong with the other offerings? Microsoft lost its #courage a long time ago, and is incredibly skittish in the consumer space. Back when Microsoft was trying to improve Windows, and include some of their helpful products and services in the box, they were slapped with allegations of antitrust and anticompetitive practices. Microsoft was nearly split up, all over the inclusion of web browser – which is now common practise for all vendors, including Apple’s Safari and Google’s Chrome – and so some of the more promising features appeared to disappear due to fear of potential European Union (EU) legal action, again.

As such, Mixed Reality and 3D features were added cautiously and half-heartedly; previewed features such as Cortana + Skype for Business + Stream + Outlook never became a real product release; some hardware was made in shockingly small numbers and simply weren’t available to purchase; and what hardware that was available to purchase, was only available in the United States… again.

To this day, HoloLens may as well be vapourware, the Surface Hub is a unicorn, both Windows Mobile and Band are dead, Groove and other services have been killed off, and what is actually remaining from that fantastic event? Not much. Microsoft has completely lost it’s mojo where consumer products are concerned.

Is the loss of cool (again) the result of a failure to deliver? Mostly, yes. Unfortunately, Microsoft’s reputation was damaged a long time ago, and they’ve never really recovered. This reputation, as the “big bad guys”, was further made part of popular culture by the famous “I’m a Mac” commercials, which portrayed Microsoft products as inferior, boring, and decidedly uncool. While this did impact some consumer confidence, and may have led to a drop in sales for Microsoft’s products and services, it was actually Microsoft that took it the hardest: Completely losing confidence in its own vision.

Let’s be honest, Microsoft “Future Vision” videos are awe-inspiring (see below), and not too far-fetched in a lot of the technology shown. Unfortunately, a vast majority of the technology shown, would be consumer facing even if business oriented. The digital paper, the dial (which they actually did make), the foldable screens, the Band devices, integration with professional services (now possible via the LinkedIn acquisition), what looks like Surface Hubs with transparent screens, clear foldable phones (possibly getting a 1st release as Andromeda), and more.

Microsoft has incredible vision… but is simply unwilling to trust itself to deliver. Unfortunately, based on past experiences, that lack of trust is pretty well-deserved… and that’s a real shame.

Anything beyond promises and fear to commit? Yes. A Microsoft representative once told me that they cannot offer any deals, discounts, freebies, or other benefits, as they would be seen as a bribe. Even though Apple wines-and-dines prospective clients, and throws in free iPads for Schools to sign over to them, Microsoft must be seen as above-board at all times, in order to avoid legal issues and bad publicity.

Unfortunately, this means that instead of competing on even playing fields, Microsoft has to remain super-conservative to avoid litigation; to the point where they even treat loyal enterprise customers, and even showcase schools, just like any other single-device customer. While this makes perfect sense from a business perspective, it has cost Microsoft many customers, and has given the company a reputation for simply not caring. 

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