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Really? Microsoft Should Get a Pass on Quality?

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Okay, so I admit I was a bit cranky in my last post, but my Microsoft Vista problems have been very frustrating. That said, I was surprised by some of the comments my post got. I was not arguing yesterday that Microsoft is evil incarnate; I find the whole MAC/WINTEL/OPENSOURCE holy war boring and beside the point. Instead, I am arguing that the computer industry can and should hold itself to a higher standard of PC quality, reliability, and ease of use and that Microsoft—as the 800-lb gorilla in the game—should lead the way. I think its size and monopoly power have kept it from pursuing this goal as aggressively as it might.

In one of those comments, Mike seems to be arguing that because refrigerators and washing machines are mechanical devices—with little or no software code—we should expect them to offer far greater reliability than do laptops and desktops. But I'm not so sure.

Mike goes on to suggest that my problem is that I am one of those people who, in his words, "Can't Understand New Technology," and also that I should "RTFM, buddy"—which I assume means "read the fabulous manual" provided with every copy of Vista. While I am certainly no programmer, I spent more than a decade in and around the software business as CEO of two companies, and I have thought some about the current state of software development (see my article on strategy and software development in the current issue of the MIT Sloan Management Review).

The first firm I ran developed a software platform that helped big telecom companies (AT&T, Verizon, etc) optimize their receivables portfolios. Our code was pretty complex and sophisticated. And guess what happened if our code didn't work for our customers? We got fired. And we got fired because there were other firms waiting to fill our shoes if we screwed up. The problem with the current PC environment is that Microsoft has made sure that if its code screws up, you are left with limited choices and high switching costs.

Later I ran a business that was a global provider of software services for Microsoft itself. We ran 2,000 centers in 56 countries. Microsoft made it clear to me from my first day as CEO that if our software didn't work reliably, we'd be out on our heads. I felt Microsoft had every right to expect our code to work reliably in a wide range of environments—and to fire us if we failed to deliver. I can assure you that no Microsoft official ever said to me, "Keith, we know you guys are writing software, so sometimes things just might not work right. We'll understand if your system goes down occasionally." On the contrary, they were ruthlessly intolerant (and appropriately so, I think) of any and all glitches in our software or service. All I am saying is that Microsoft needs to hold itself, and its partners, if necessary, to the same standard of quality and reliability.

Others commenters suggested that my laptop problems were the fault of Dell and not Microsoft (these people apparently have the unfathomable capability to diagnose complex system problems by merely reading a short blog)—but to me, to argue whether the problem is Microsoft or Dell really misses the point. Assume for a moment that Dell is completely to blame for the very bad reviews Vista is getting in the business community (seems hard to imagine). Wouldn't it be incumbent upon Microsoft, as the real power player in the industry, to make sure this doesn't happen -- or at least to make sure that the problems get smaller (instead of larger) with every new release? If the problem really was in Dell's shop, it seems that Microsoft has the power to make sure Dell would get that shop in order fast.

Remember the Firestone Tires fiasco? Firestone blamed Ford, Ford blamed Firestone (meanwhile people were dying on the highways). Ford canceled tire orders from Firestone, Firestone took a huge charge on its income statement, and the problem got fixed. If Dell really is to blame, why haven't we read about Microsoft telling Dell it will no longer sell it software till it gets its driver problem fixed? Maybe because right now Microsoft knows Dell doesn't have any good options to the Microsoft Platform (Ford could buy tires from Goodyear) and wants to keep it that way. We end up back at my Monopoly point.

In his comment, Mike took pains to point out -- as if readers needed to have it explained to them -- that his label for me as a person who "Can't Understand New Technology" is an acronym. In doing so, he points to what I believe is the biggest obstacle the IT world faces in creating the kinds of systems that reach their full potential: Some in IT simply hate "stupid customers" -- people less technically proficient than they are. And you can see from the tone of his comment, the level of vitriol can rise to the level of a holy war. But each year the number of non-technical people on this planet grows faster than the number of technical ones, and that fact isn't going to change anytime soon.

Some of the smartest, most intellectually honest, and committed people I have met in business are software developers. That's why I am unwilling to accept the idea that my PC will never work as reliably as my washing machine. Someday it will. Software companies that lead in the coming years will drop their resentment of customers who don't know as much as they do -- and they'll learn to view the computing experience from the perspective of the user (not as easy as it sounds). And they'll form coalitions of organizations willing to take responsibility for the entire computing experience -- not just for their small piece of it. Some will say that Apple is doing this, but I would say that even Apple is only scratching the surface.

Last updated: Apr 16, 2008




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