MSN In Need of an Image Makeover?
In recent months, Microsoft's MSN online services arm has released several products that it sees as "very cool." Most of them, however, have received a lukewarm reception by both early adopters and the media, leaving some MSN employees frustrated and confused as to what exactly they are doing wrong.
An internal debate began within Microsoft after veteran engineer turned Google employee Mark Lucovsky wrote in his Web log that Microsoft no longer knew how to "ship" software. He noted that work from Microsoft engineers could take years to reach customers while "software as a service" companies such as Amazon and Google deliver improvements overnight.
Has Microsoft lost the magic touch -- Is Microsoft software passé?
Many Microsoft employees were quick to refute Lucovsky's points, noting that Windows cannot be compared to Web services. But the perception of Microsoft as a slow-mover has begun to sink in within the confines of Redmond.
Mike Torres, Lead Product Manager for MSN Spaces, complained about the image issue in his Web log last week. "Some of the fallout from the [Lucovsky] debate was interesting. In comment threads on Scoble's blog and elsewhere, people were saying some interesting things about MSN," Torres wrote. "MSN is playing catch-up to Google and Yahoo," one person opined. Another wrote: "MSN isn't cool, I would never use it."
"Obviously I take some of that to heart," Torres said.
Torres and other employees have also been disheartened by the lack of media coverage of Microsoft's recent accomplishments. For example, Google's launch of its Maps service was met with virtual applause while improvements to MSN Maps & Directions went practically unnoticed.
"For some reason, services like Gmail and Yahoo's Search APIs tend to get a lot more play amongst "sneezers" than things like Outlook Live! or MSN Video," said Torres.
MSN Program Manager Dare Obasanjo shared such concerns after the media extensively covered Yahoo's Search Developer Network and all but ignored the similar ability of MSN to offer search results as RSS feeds.
"I saw more buzz about YSDN than about the MSN Search feeds from various corners. I suspect that the lack of "oomph" in the announcement is the cause of this occurrence," said Obasanjo.
In order to understand and fix the problem, MSN's Torres asked for opinions from users. "Honestly? MSN dumbs things down," one reply read. "There's the fact that I can’t find anything. I've been using MSN for years, and there are still things I don't know MSN does."
Another user complained of MSN's dropping of free Outlook access to Hotmail accounts, which he said was handled poorly and looked as if Microsoft was trying to make money by pushing users to its Outlook Live program. "It was instantly perceived as 'MS is forcing free accounts to paid ones'," he wrote.
Torres is hopeful people will once again be excited by MSN's services and admits that, right now, MSN is only "pretty good." The company is already testing what it calls "incubation projects" to bring back the buzz, including a personalized Start page that serves as an aggregator of content from user-defined RSS feeds.
"The point is to discover what we could do better to cater to early adopters short of changing our name to something silly sounding or killing the butterfly," said Torres. "How can we get early adopters (and the media for that matter) to speak of MSN in a positive light?"