Perception Debt and When Doing Right Is No Longer Possible

A few days ago, I tweeted that I really didn’t care to hear to much more about Windows 8 and the things coming out of the Build conference.

I lied and I’m sorry.

I couldn’t resist downloading and installing the full Win 8 package. I had it running in VirtualBox in about 35 minutes. I love euro sans-serif typefaces and big bold things in lime green; so naturally, I’m in love with Metro. I can’t really comment on its usability yet, but looks wise; it is the best thing out of Redmond in a very long time.

My workhorse machine is a newish i7 Macbook Pro, within which a Fusion Windows 7 VM is always running. I like having full access to both ecosystems; and there are things in particular that I like about the Mac and those that I like about Windows. I could live in either world if forced to do so; but I’m not and so I use the best of both.

Enough about me; let’s talk about software, its use, people’s perception and a lizard.

Two points:

I’m sure Microsoft will continue to gather increasingly bad press, regardless of how Windows 8 works or fits people’s needs. While I find it hard to argue that the smart people working on these things are trying to do anything but build the best products for their customers, Microsoft is not showing any signs of changing its tactics and will continue doing what it has done for years. I am not clear any of this press has anything to do with the technical merit of a Microsoft product and that annoys me.

Second, I strongly dislike how media pundits see things and how they quickly dismiss things that do not suit them. In my opinion, they are unlike 95% of the remainder of the population. I like to think I am a computer power user.

I witnessed a designer friend of mine Photoshop a customer service headset on an iguana in less than 10 minutes and it was perfect. A power user no doubt, but likely a bit different than me, I’m a developer.

So am I like Mossberg? Or Gruber? Last time I checked, neither does what I do daily. Why would I take advice from people who do not have at least similar uses and needs as my own?

These two things alongside all of the perception debt that Microsoft has accumulated over time, it got me to wondering if it were even possible for them to do right any longer. When does this point occur? Can it be overcome? How do people decide which OS to live within? When do they decide to switch?

Much has been written about how people evaluate things, come to conclusions and how irrational these processes can be. Now relate this to software and think about the position Microsoft finds itself.

Let’s assume Microsoft is a victim of success: They are trying to please a huge audience with vastly different needs across a massive product line. Now let’s compare them with a company that is hugely focused and only trying to please a tightly defined core¬†audience. Apple? Let’s avoid the obvious comparison and use someone else.

Second, I do believe Microsoft has some great products and I say that from an entirely technical point of view. SQL Server is the very best RDBMS I have worked with, and for numerous reasons. It is expensive, but you apparently get what you pay for. I like C#, although it’s not entirely contained within Redmond these days. I’ve been running Windows 7 forever now without a single issue - none. So let’s compare Microsoft with this other company’s handling of technical excellence as well.

I sold my car recently. I’ve gotten a lot of unsolicited advice about what I might replace it with. I have used BMW in many arguments for how teams might approach software; so naturally, a lot of people have pointed me towards a 3 series1.

BMW doesn’t sell cars,¬†they sell “Joy”. When building software, I try to remind our team that software is indeed soft and people have reactions to us and every feature we provide them. It may be the best feature in the world, but if people do not see the value, then it is doomed to the dustbin. Whether or not the 3 series is a great car is always irrelevant, the point is that alongside a technical team is marketing and sales providing cover as they move forward in synch as a team.

BMW does not try to suit everyone. They build certain types of vehicles that appeal to a concise demographic of people and in that circle they work hard to stay competitive within.

In these respects, Microsoft is not like BMW at all.

Now I have also heard a great deal regarding why I should not buy a BMW. I must say that none of this dialog focused on matching my (currently unknown) needs to a car that suits those best. I’ve heard things like:

  • “A BMW will radically change people’s perceptions of you”;
  • “You can’t have a car that’s nicer than X person, or they’re going to look at you funny”;
  • “When I see a 3 series, I think that person is faux-riche or putting on a show”;

Is there a pattern here? None of this has anything to do with technical abilities or whether or not a sedan, coupe, RWD, AWD, wagon, automatic or manual transmission would suit me best. None of this has anything to do with maintenance or total cost of ownership. None of this discourse has anything to do with driving dynamics or “feel”. None of this is about technical merit.

In this case, Microsoft apparently has the same problem with pundits as BMW does.

There are a lot of problems in Redmond these days, but is perception debt be their largest deficit to pull back? Where would you start? The products you make? Engineering? Marketing? Your customers? The media?

Windows 8 would have been a great place to ditch the Windows name entirely and start something new.

The first thing to do when you’re in a hole is to stop digging.

1I do not or have ever owned a BMW. This pattern is unlikely to change.