Everybody knows that Microsoft has done some bad stuff in the past... but over the past few years they've worked hard to shed the image of a corporate monster in favor of innovation, style and usability. Surprised?
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You might not know this, but Microsoft has been steadily chipping away (metaphorically speaking) at a big stone carving of the phrase “Micro$oft $ucks" over the past few years, and the technology giant behind Windows, Microsoft Office, Xbox, Windows Phone and Windows Live is looking more and more like a company that is in tune with its users rather than one looking to make the next quick buck out of its customers.
This is a far cry from the 1980s and 1990s, when Microsoft was synonymous with an IT giant that simply didn’t seem to care about usability and was more interested in buying useful companies to expand its own library of applications and developers that it could then sell on under the Microsoft label (this is how Excel came into being, for example). Eventually it became an accepted belief that they bought the useful companies and just closed them to avoid having them grow into a competitor.
With Windows Phone and Windows 7, and the recent showing of Windows 8 – not to mention Windows Live and Office 365 – Microsoft finally seems to be treating its corporate and domestic customers as valuable, and with respect. This used to be reserved for corporate clients.
They might never be as cool as Apple, but Microsoft is certainly becoming less “sucky"…
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So how did Microsoft get its bad reputation in the first place?
Well, anti-trust suits didn’t help their case, to be honest. Monopolizing any industry is a risky business, and throughout the 1990s in particular Redmond was suspected of playing very dirty to get the results they wanted, usually via acquisitions of smaller firms developing interesting technology. This is in part one of the reasons why Microsoft became known for clunky software that didn’t appear to be cross-compatible with their other applications.
Of course, stuffy, slightly superior-sounding PR (that read like it was written by a director and not a wordsmith) didn’t help Microsoft during this era. Fair enough, they were the market leaders, but even when faults were found in the operating system, vulnerabilities in the browser, etc., there was little in the way of apology. The phrase "It's not a bug, it's a feature" was often used to summarize Microsoft's responses to users' complaints. It was more than enough to see the company lampooned in a James Bond film for knowingly publishing bug-filled software.
We shouldn’t forget selling services that should have been free, either, such as Internet Explorer, or the ability to access a Microsoft Network (MSN) email account via Outlook Express. In the old days, if Microsoft could charge you, they would.
Portable technology was often late in coming to MS, and when it did the user interface was nothing to write home about. Windows Mobile was far too similar to the old Pocket PC platform with a ten year case of freezer burn, while Zune was excellent hardware and a good user interface that was then given to a marketing department that appears to have mistaken it for an electric toothbrush.
Then you’ve got the stuff that should have been so much better. Windows Vista is a key example, although this could possibly be identified as Microsoft’s watershed moment. Reaction to the operating system was so poor that they reissued it as Windows 7; the differences are largely superficial (give or take a few new features and better user access control) and yet the later OS is so much more popular. Or at least it was much, much less despised.
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If the Vista debacle was the moment in which Microsoft finally woke up and smelled the coffee, then what has happened since then to confirm this?
Xbox 360 predates Vista by a couple of years, but the original device wasn’t perfect – notably for the red rings of death – and efforts have been made to dispel hardware issues in later models. The user interface on Xbox 360 and Xbox LIVE is a pleasure to use, a pattern that you will notice has spread to other products.
Windows Phone, for instance, features the Metro user interface, as does the Zune desktop software, which is a likely replacement for Windows Media Player when Windows 8 rolls around, which will also make heavy use of Metro.
There is better cross-compatibility across Microsoft software and operating systems, and were legacy software would once have to be discarded following an upgrade to the latest OS, Virtual PC is provided free for users.
In fact, this habit of giving things away (just check out Windows Live Essentials) makes Microsoft seem less like the big business behemoth that we know it is and more like a gentle giant of the computing landscape.
The developers of Windows Phone even took the guys trying to hack the platform under their wing and got together to create a tool for unlocking phones for running homebrew applications! The embracing of this particular user community online as well as the provision of homes for communities of developers for Xbox, Windows and Windows Phone is another positive move.
It’s almost as if Microsoft hired some PR people…
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Gates’ Microsoft vs Ballmer’s Microsoft
On one level, we can attribute the modern success of Microsoft to the leadership of Steve Ballmer, a guy who has been with the company for many years and who replaced Bill Gates as chief executive in 2000. Does this mean that we can split the two sides of Microsoft’s bizarre coin-like reputation between the two CEOs? Is there really a difference between Bill Gates’ Microsoft and Steve Ballmers’?
Perhaps: While Bill Gates remains as company chairman, he has been gallivanting around distributing cash and delivering speeches for non-profit causes, Steve Ballmer has been at the forefront of Microsoft. He's earned himself an interesting reputation delivering keynote speeches and fronting product launches such as Windows Phone.
But the change wasn't instant. Through some combination of Gates withdrawing his influence of pride in the brand to the point of arrogance, and Ballmer introducing the business common sense that customers should be kept happy if it can be done affordably, Microsoft was able to understand how much Vista sucked, and how much they had sucked up until then. We can easily imagine that Bill Gates would have written off Vista's problems as features, but under Ballmer the problems were addressed and Windows 7 was the answer. We have seen a very clear change of direction at Microsoft in order for the company to remain relevant. It's a promising direction indicated by new Windows OSs for phone and PC that were miles beyond their predecessors, and which Windows 8 hopes to take one step further and into the tablet and ARM processor spaces.
This is now Steve Ballmer’s Microsoft, and it seems quite different from the giant built by Bill Gates. It no longer sucks.