Five things Microsoft is doing wrong

Microsoft is one of the largest tech companies on the planet. The multi-billion dollar devices and services company employs some of the most brightest scientists, software engineers and designers on the planet. It has demonstrated its ability to create some of the most compelling technologies in the market. Yesterday I discussed the five things I think the company is doing right.

But it's not all good for Microsoft, and there are plenty of questions need asking. Why, for example, is its mobile strategy sucking wind? Why is its web browser, one of the single most important pieces on a computing device these days, struggling to keep pace with other browsers in standards compliance and end user features? In this post I will focus on five areas where I think Microsoft is missing the boat.

Internet Explorer

I have a love/hate relationship with Internet Explorer. I love the fact that Microsoft is actively engaged with the development community to change the negative perception of this browser and I love the experience of using it in touch mode on a touch device. However, I pretty much hate everything else about it, especially its desktop counterpart. Tab syncing should have been in IE with version 10. And why can’t I at least send my browsing session from my PC to my phone (and vice versa) in the interim?

From a development perspective there is a lot of damage that has been done to the image of IE and Microsoft has no one to blame but itself: slow updates to standards compliance being chief among them. Even though Internet Explorer is being updated on a more rapid schedule (yearly it seems), standards are moving at such a blistering pace (although approval is slow) there needs to be more frequent updates so developers can test and push the envelope. From an end user perspective, IE is just now getting key features that have existed in other browsers for almost a year. There’s no real reason why we cannot see the same rendering engine across all Windows devices (including Windows Phone) and the Xbox 360/One before the end of 2013. IE has a ton of catching up left to do.

Natural User Interface Strategy (NUI)

I’m a firm believe that when entering a market that is already established, it’s a good idea to enter in such a way that you leap past the major players. When Microsoft entered today’s mobile market with Windows Phone back in October 2010, it needed a strong way to differentiate itself, get the attention of consumers and entice them to purchase Windows Phone.

For various reasons, this didn’t happen. Perhaps Microsoft relied on brand recognition and assumed that consumers would buy Windows Phone just because Microsoft created it. Unfortunately by that point, Microsoft had lost so much mobile mindshare to Apple and Google, there was no way that plan would work. How about that snazzy new UI as a differentiator? It’s certainly different, but proved that it was not enough to cause the masses to salivate over Windows Phone.

Something tells me the same mistake is being made with Windows 8. The new Windows UI is such a strong differentiator, perhaps consumers don’t know what to make of it and at first glance it probably feels so unfamiliar to them that the curb appeal is simply not enough to boost sales.

So how does Microsoft get the attention of consumers and boost sales of its devices? How can it overcome the little to no mindshare it has when it comes to mobile devices? I believe the tech giant needs a compelling feature that will differentiate its devices from the competition. Baking natural user interface technology into phones, tablets, laptops and monitors will leap Windows devices ahead of the competition and get the attention of the general public.

If you’ve been reading my stories long enough you'll know this is one area that I continually push for Microsoft to expand its efforts. I am convinced that one of the primary reasons (not the only reason) the Xbox 360 pushed ahead in sales numbers was because the introduction of Kinect changed the conversation in terms of how people interacted with video games and their television. Who cares if they mostly sit unused right now? The bottom line is that this technology got people’s attention and actually made their lives a little bit better although in small ways. With the Xbox One, Microsoft has taken this technology to new levels. All the data it has been collecting since November 2011 when Kinect first launched has helped to improve Kinect dramatically.

So why are we only seeing it in the Xbox One, and as a small feature of the cooking app in the Windows 8.1 preview? Microsoft can make fun of Siri all it wants in its iPad comparison commercials, but is has absolutely nothing to show for a feature that I am seeing more and more people use on their iPhones. Nothing.

Microsoft has the technology. It has the resources. It has the data. It has posted videos on YouTube demoing its Siri response, but it has produced no real answer. Apple and Google are not sitting on their laurels in this area. They are moving quickly to make interacting with their devices through talk better than ever.

Users can use speech to interact with Windows Phone and dictate text messages. There’s even the ability to do voice searches. But this functionality is nowhere near as good as Siri or Google Now. Microsoft needs to get its NUI act together and it needs to do it yesterday.

The Mobile Strategy

Apple had a pretty nice quarter with iPhone sales. And Samsung is looking like it will see an increase in phone sales as well. Microsoft? Well, that’s another story. Windows Phone is growing, but very slowly and not even near fast enough. Interest in tablets took a dive this past quarter.  Put it all together and you have a very bleak situation for mobile devices from Microsoft. There’s not a lot to be excited about. No one seems to want these devices. As good as the Surface is the RT version is not selling very well and the $900 million inventory hit to Microsoft’s bottom line proves this point.

This will continue to be an area of pain for this company unless it figures out a way to get out ahead of the competition through device and UI innovation (NUI), and greatly improve how it communicates why consumers should purchase Windows devices instead of Apple or Android.

The Windows Phone update policy is pure madness. It’s not as bad as Android, but it’s not anywhere near as good as iPhone. It amazes me that this company cannot get updates out to all devices at the same time. I understand there are a myriad of Windows Phone device types among different carriers. But there’s no way to coordinate that any better than what we get now? Why is update 2 going out to only one type of device on one carrier?

Communication

When Microsoft launched Windows 8 it probably had the worst messaging a company could ever have when introducing new versions of a product with radical hardware and a completely overhauled UI. I didn’t mind the original Surface commercials with the dancing Surface users. I thought it was a great way to introduce us to a brand new product; but only for a few weeks. Why that campaign ran as long as it did is beyond me. I kept asking myself, why should people purchase the Surface? Is it only because it has a keyboard? Remember those Windows 8 commercials at launch? They were very similar. There was nothing that really explained why it was better than before and why consumers should go out and buy Windows machines. Although communication is getting better, there’s still more to do.

The problem with the original Surface and Windows advertising campaign is that they didn’t focus on features as well as they should. With an interface as radically different as Windows 8, there should have been a ton of messaging centered around how Windows 8 can actually improve our quality of life. Don’t just show kids pointing at touch screens or menus swiping from the side of the screen, show me how all my content goes with me everywhere. Show me how I can benefit from the built-in apps like the new cooking app. Show me how the new cooking app is really beneficial when I am baking a cake and I can’t touch my screen with my dirty hands but with something as simple as a swipe, I can navigate through the recipe. These are the things that can actually improve quality of life albeit in small ways. Tell me why my next purchase should be a Samsung ultrabook and not a Macbook Air.

Bing. I really like the Bing commercials, but perhaps it’s time to start keying in on the sidebar in some new advertising. There are times when I look for someone on Facebook and I cannot find them. So I type their name into Bing, and their Facebook profile shows up. I did this exact thing a week ago. Bing has the ability to mine lots of different sources for information which allows it to return data that Google can’t even come close to. Microsoft should be talking about that.

SkyDrive and Outlook commercials are cute. But people really don’t know that you can actually use Word, PowerPoint and Excel online for free. People don’t know that they can create documents in these programs right within SkyDrive, save them, and have them magically appear on phone, tablet, or PC. Tell me why I need to ditch Gmail and move everything solely to Outlook. Explain why SkyDrive is better for me than Dropbox.

The Xbox One fiasco was shocking. I’ll just leave it at that and say that I hope Microsoft learned its lesson.

As we transition into a new era of computing, it is absolutely essential that Microsoft’s messaging is flawless. There is no room for error when you are struggling to sell devices. No more cute commercials of dancing schoolgirls. Sell us on the features and pricing.

Windows/Surface RT

For well over a decade, Windows users were accustomed to clicking a small little start button at the bottom left of their screen to access all their applications and in some instances documents. Windows 8 changed all that. Many of you lost your cool and consumers the world over had problems with it too. But the start button wasn’t the only issue with Windows 8. The touch interface was better suited for touch devices, which almost all existing Windows users did not own.

So what happens when existing Windows users install Windows 8 on old hardware? Disaster. Of all the complaints I’ve had from Windows 8 users, they have all been because someone installed it on hardware not designed for it. Microsoft tried to make using the new OS mouse/keyboard friendly but users still complained. For those that had modern devices, they had a much better experience.

Switching between the new UI and the familiar desktop interface was another source of pain as many complained that the experience was too jarring. Microsoft is addressing this problem in 8.1 by allowing users to install the same background image for desktop and Start screen modes. I wish Microsoft would go much further and actually redesign the desktop to look much more similar to the new Windows UI design language. Perhaps this is in the works.

It’s good that Microsoft is finally addressing these issues but something tells me this may not be enough to get people’s attention. The perception of Windows 8 is not very good right now. Microsoft needs features and hardware that will get the attention of consumers and get them in the stores buying Windows devices.

One of the biggest "what the hell" situations right now exists with Windows RT and its desktop mode. Microsoft needs to do much more here. Why is it still there? If the goal is to eventually allow full blown desktop use, this needs to be communicated sooner rather than later. At this time we know nothing. All we can do is speculate that the reason for the desktop is because of Office. If indeed Windows RT is a glimpse into the future of Windows, the BUILD conference would have been a great time to communicate about the future of RT. Consider that boat missed.

Not only does Microsoft need to address the usability concerns, it needs to get Windows 8 onto better hardware and fast. The launch quality (and quantity) from Windows hardware partners was lackluster. The only option I could recommend to friends in the market for a new machine was the Surface and even then I had some reservations. I use Surface RT and I find it a very capable device for content creation and consumption. I plan on purchasing the next version of the Surface Pro if Microsoft can solve the battery life problem.  OEMs need to get their act together. Microsoft needs to aggressively expand the Surface accessory line with a new docking solution.

A big problem with Windows devices right now is pricing. Hopefully with the launch of 8.1 we will begin to see small devices around 7-8 inch size that are competitively priced. The new Surface RT price is what I feel the device should have been introduced at. Microsoft would have lost a ton of money per device, but at least there could potentially be several million devices out there providing free advertising. Microsoft needs to get as many of these devices into the hands of as many people as possible. Techies can gripe and moan about performance and screen resolution all day long, what regular users care about is whether or not they can check Facebook and write a paper for class.

Slow sales of Windows 8 and Surface are a collection of poor device selection, poor messaging, usability problems, and pricing. Do slow Surface sales imply people don’t want tablets or that tablets are not PC’s? I don’t think so. Microsoft should not give up. It needs to stay the course because it has some really compelling experiences to offer consumers.

Conclusion

Microsoft gets a lot of undeserved negative criticism. But there are some areas where the negativity and angst towards the tech giant is very much warranted. I picked five areas: Internet Explorer, Natural User Interface (NUI), Mobile Strategy, Communications, Windows/Surface.

You may have additional areas where you think Microsoft is getting it wrong. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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