In a word: Complexity
Yes, I know Iâ€™ve touched on this before, but it seems more apparent than ever that one of the problems crushing Microsoft at the moment is a set of overly complex experiences. We need simplicity.
One the strongest marketing messages you can broadcast is: It just works! Give me a product that just works, and youâ€™ve got yourself a fan.
Companies like Apple (the current poster-child for ease), Atlassian, and Nokia generally get this.
To be fair Microsoft has tried to make things simpler (and perhaps too far in some cases â€“ check out the latest version of Movie Maker for proof of that: itâ€™s so simple itâ€™s practically useless), but in general their experiences are way too complex.
Letâ€™s take a few examples.
Exhibit A: Internet Explorer
The biggest example is the burdensome IE8. Bloated is an understatement.
Consider this: What do you want in a browser? Hereâ€™s how my behaviour matches my wants, I use:
1. Chrome for speed and simple browsing
2. Firefox if I want plugins (eg Firebug and FireFTP)
3. And IE if I really have too
Surely all people want is speed, simplicity, and some extensibility. Not silly slices and accelerators (that only 0.1% of users will ever even touch). And certainly not a user experience that breaks many sites that theyâ€™ve been working happily with for years.
As an aside, the whole standards compliance that Microsoft is pushing with IE8 is an answer to a question that hasnâ€™t been asked. If Microsoft had pushed for better standards 10 years ago it would have been good. Perhaps even 5 years ago. But frankly, that ship sailed long ago. Todayâ€™s real standard is whether it works in IE7 and Mozilla. Burdening developers (and more insidiously â€“ the users) with this annoying compatibility mode is just wrong. I was amazed to see that a â€˜featureâ€™ of the Release Candidate version of IE8 is that it will check a huge database of known sites that require compatibility mode and adjust itself accordingly (meanwhile the rest of us turned on permanent compatibility mode ages ago, and developers simply added IE=EmulateIE7 meta tags to their sites).
So, the situation stands like this: Microsoft introduce a stupid compatibility mode that no one wants. They burden developers with fixing sites that donâ€™t render well. The outcry is huge, so instead of just scrapping the crazy notion they put in extra infrastructure to identify which sites shouldnâ€™t use it. And they call this a feature. What are these clowns thinking?
By the way, as a simple hypothetical, imagine that all the IE competitors (Firefox, Chrome, Safari, Opera, etc) get together in a room. Theyâ€™re discussing how they can compete against IEâ€™s dominance. Some complain about the fact that IE is so intertwined with the OS and the unfair advantage this gives. Others talk about features. Finally one sinister person at the back suggests:
â€˜You know what would be good? If we could somehow get a malicious bit of code into IE so that by default it renders most web sites incorrectly. And to really seal the deal, weâ€™ll make it appear as though it is some kind of standards compliance. Thatâ€™ll stuff â€˜emâ€¦â€™
Exhibit B: Windows Mobile
OK, next example: Windows Mobile. Much has been written about how Windows Mobiles are losing ground to iPhones (my example). Sure, the iPhone App market could be contributing, the coolness factor, and many other reasons why could be discussed. However, in my opinion, one of the big contributors is the difficulty users experience getting their devices to sync up.
In fact this is the reason I will likely be switching from my current Windows Mobile device to *gasp* an iPhone when my contract comes up for renewal.
For starters, the Sync software isnâ€™t even built into Windows. I need to find the download from Microsoft, install it, and then go through the dance of deleting previous partnerships, creating news ones, trying to remember which settings I had syncing old contacts and calendar items and the list goes on. Itâ€™s one of the main things I dread each time I reformat my machine (approx every 3-4 months). Will the iPhone be better? I canâ€™t be sure â€“ but everyone (yes, everyone!) Iâ€™ve spoken to assures me it is.
However, the point isnâ€™t really if the iPhone is easier. The point is that the Windows Mobile process is so bad that Iâ€™m looking around for other options.
Example C: Windows Live Writer
Final example: Live Writer. This is one of the better programs Microsoft has (ever) produced. It does a really good job of managing anything to do with your blog (or blog based web site â€“ eg my wifeâ€™s site is all managed via Live Writer).
I recommend it to people all the time (see here for example).
But, do you know how to install Live Writer? Youâ€™d think it would be simple right? No, these days you have to go and install the Live Essentials pack and navigate your way through 7 programs and 3 add-ons. For Peteâ€™s sake â€“ Why? Has some junior in marketing just learned the *amazing* concept of cross-selling?
Itâ€™s a shame really. Instead of a simple install experience and beautiful program experience, it has now been mired with a complex and annoying installer. Whatâ€™s worse, if you donâ€™t un-tick all those extra install boxes youâ€™ll end up with the fucking MSN toolbar installed. And donâ€™t get me started on it trying to mess with my default search provider â€“ another irritation.
A potential happy customer, now really annoyed.
Want to know how Live Writer should install? Then do this. Go and install Google Chrome. Itâ€™s simple and it works. And (if Iâ€™m not mistaken) uses ClickOnce â€“ a Microsoft innovation of all things!
Ask this question about IE8, Windows Mobile, Live Writer and any of their hundreds of other applications:
Q: Can we say â€˜It just worksâ€™
If the answer is no, then we have a problem.
A plea for simplicity
Look, Iâ€™m a big fan of Microsoft, but sometimes I just canâ€™t understand what their strategy is. At times, it seems theyâ€™re hell bent on making life harder and more complex for me.
So, hereâ€™s my plea: Microsoft, please stop working so hard on new features, products and services, and instead just take some time to work on simplicity. The financial returns will surprise you.