10 things Microsoft did right in 2009

The year 2009 was pretty good to Microsoft, even as the weak economy ravaged sales. Microsoft actually did a few things right. The did-wrong list will come later today (not tomorrow as previously posted). For now, I present the list of 10 things Microsoft did right in 2009 -- in no order of importance. They're all important. Microsoft:

1. Flawlessly launched Windows 7. There's a metaphor somehow in Microsoft launching Windows 7 during the 40th anniversary year of the Apollo moon landing. Microsoft's precision reminds of NASA sending man to the moon. While the human risk wasn't as great and many of the engineering challenges were far less than Apollo 11, Windows 7 needed perfect launch and delivery, from testing to release candidate to voluming licensing availability and retail release. Microsoft pulled it off.

It's clear that Microsoft re-engineered the engineering process. The mistakes that led to overlong development of Windows Vista, the dumping of well-publicized features and late delivery (How could Microsoft miss Holiday 2006?) didn't reappear. Microsoft successfully executed a taunt development schedule, improved performance in the right places (like startup and wakeup), made better the user interface and insured that most drivers would be available for popular devices.

Microsoft's success was as much about managing perceptions as developing and delivering a good product. The company clearly worked the blogs that Microsoft influencers, IT managers and some consumers read, as well social networks and forums they might participate in. Early positive reviews and some kick-ass "Laptop Hunters" marketing helped Windows 7 to pull free from the negative reaction gravity that kept Windows Vista from achieving escape velocity.

2. Opened retail stores. Coordinated with Windows 7's launch, Microsoft opened retail stores in Arizona and California and a café in France. The stores are a first step that will need many more to follow. During his Consumer Electronics Show 2009 keynote, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said that companies most likely to succeed after a recession make investments during one. Retail stores are one such investment. Apple opened its first retail stores during the 2000-01 recession. Microsoft's situation and timing remind of Apple in May 2001, for starters during a recession. Microsoft's retail strategy will require commitment, if necessary, including running stores at losses for their greater marketing benefit.

3. Offered crapware-free PCs. Microsoft started selling Windows 7 PCs through its online and brick-and-mortar stores in October, free of the preloaded software -- crapware -- that can bog down the performance of even a new system. It's an important change to giving Windows 7 PC users the experience Microsoft engineered out of the box.

4. Launched Bing. Microsoft's "decision engine" may never catch Google. Bing will cannibalize Yahoo search share first. But as a consumer product, with excellent user interface and simply exceptional advertising, Bing already is helping to revive Microsoft's brand outside of the business market. Search is the most popular activity on the Web. By being there with a solid product and big brand, Microsoft can snatch some of the good consumer feeling that Apple or Google gets.

5. Released Security Essentials. Microsoft finally did the right thing by customers and the Windows brand by offering free malware protection. No doubt, Microsoft long resisted the inevitable for the benefit of its anti-malware software partners and for concern about antitrust problems. Security Essentials is reliable malware protection that doesn't overtax Windows. For 2010, Microsoft could make the software better by making it even easier for consumers to get -- say, on new PCs.

6. Promoted Steven Sinofsky. The man who methodically led the team that turned around Microsoft's flagship operating system now leads the Windows & Windows Live division. Sinfosky hugely deserved the promotion to president of the division (see #1). Next up: Turning around Windows Live. Can Sinofsky and team deliver? First answer may come at MIX 10, in March.

7. Released Zune 4.0 software and Zune HD. It's too bad iPod is so popular. Zune 4.0 and Zune HD are both kick-ass products. Microsoft showed that Xbox 360 and Xbox Live aren't flukes. Microsoft can provide good end-to-end solutions in other markets. The company also learned, hopefully, an important lesson: Backwards compatibility isn't everything. Microsoft broke backwards compatibility, by providing new features in Zune HD not available for older devices.

8. Settled antitrust case with the European Union. Last week's browser "Choice Screen" agreement with the EU's Competition Commission is much bigger than it seems. Microsoft's concessions did more than end the browser antitrust case, they effectively sidelined another open investigation, by the company agreeing to release additional interoperability information -- and for products broader than Windows, including Office and SharePoint Server.

9. Improved advertising. Microsoft advertising has long been major lame, particularly the persistent and pointless corporate commercials. From February, Microsoft hit a series of marketing home runs, each stronger than the last:

  • "The Rookies," featuring cute kids using Windows Live Photo Gallery.
  • "Laptop Hunters," where people shopped for a PC, which they could keep if within their pre-agreed budget.
  • "Bing," which commercials made real the limitations of search keywords.
  • "Windows 7 was my idea," what anyone's idea of good Microsoft advertising should be.

If 2010 advertising is this good, or even better, Microsoft will get a good branding start for the new decade.

10. Debuted Silverlight 4.0. Microsoft continued making its nearly annual updates to Silverlight, releasing v4 beta during Professional Developers Conference 2009. Sadly, Silverlight 4.0 was the only real light coming out of PDC. Internet Explorer 9 is vaporware and Azure has morphed into last year's Amazon Web Services. But Silverlight promises Adobe AIR-like capabilities, support for microphones and Webcams, standalone Silverlight containers and better HTML support, including HTTP streaming, among other new features. A good thing is getting even better.

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