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Last week, I promised a treat for all those folks who say I never say anything critical of Microsoft: a list of my top ten gripes about the company and their products. Now, I make no secret of the fact that, as a Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE) and Microsoft Most Valuable Professional (MVP), I specialize in supporting Microsoft software. If I didn’t like it, I wouldn’t study it, work with it, and spend most of my days writing about it – I’m not a masochist. But there are certainly things about the company and its products that I don’t like.

This week I’ll share my list with you, and next week I’ll print your responses. I’ll include both comments about the company itself and some of my complaints about various products. Here goes:

  1. My first complaint is that the company is just too darn big. When any entity grows beyond a certain point, it becomes sluggish and less efficient and doesn’t function as well. That applies to obese people (and animals), big government, and private businesses. Microsoft employees are, for the most part, enthusiastic and creative and want to give their customers great products, but just as the wheels of our gigantic government move at a snail’s pace, so does the decision-making process within the company. There are just too many levels that any decision has to go through, too many people to raise questions and place obstacles in the way of getting the job done. This, unfortunately, seems to be the consequences of success in today’s business world. It’s certainly not unique to Microsoft, but a software company, especially, needs to be innovative and it’s hard to be innovative when every idea gets smothered under layers and layers of …
  2. Lawyers. Too many of them. I recently read a blog post by an anonymous Microsoft employee that mentioned how the lawyers tie the hands of the rest of the employees. You can’t say anything in public without “running it by the lawyers.” You can’t publish anything, including help for software problems, without the approval of the legal department. The focus can’t be on making the best products when it has to be on avoiding litigation. The reason for this is obvious and hearkens back to number 1. When a company becomes so big and successful, it becomes a target for lawsuits. Many of them are unfounded, but it still takes time to defend against them, so the attorneys become the de facto final decision makers. That doesn’t make for a good environment for employees or customers.
  3. It almost always takes three times to get it right. Long time observers of Microsoft products notice a pattern: somewhere around version 3, most products start to come together. Somewhere around service pack 3, the operating systems become stable and get the bugs worked out. On the one hand, I commend them for being persistent and eventually getting it right, but it would be nice if we didn’t have to suffer through versions 1 and 2 before getting to the “third time’s a charm” stage.
  4. Lately the company seems to be listening too closely to the open sourcerers. They’re trying to make Windows more like *NIX – not just in good ways (such as more security) but in all ways, such as making new products command line oriented. The biggest complaint I hear about Exchange 2007 is that many of the tasks that used to be easily accomplished in the GUI now require you to go to the command line. The original point of Windows was that it provided a graphical interface. Most of the people who buy Windows do it because they don’t want to deal with all that command line stuff. Sure, throw in command line support for us geeks, but give it to us in addition to the rich GUI, not in place of it.
  5. The “tough love” approach. It’s is great for rebellious adolescents, but it’s no way to treat your customers. Most of the time, Microsoft works hard to give users what they want, but sometimes they get stubborn and decide they know what’s best for you and they’re going to give it to you whether you want it or not. The new Ribbon interface in Office 2007 is a case in point. I like it, but it seems a lot of Office users don’t. It would have been soooo easy to build the Classic menus in as an option (as evidenced by the third party add-in that does it so seamlessly), so why didn’t Microsoft do that, or at least provide it as a free download, instead of forcing you to pay thirty bucks to a third party on top of the already high cost of Office if you want to be able to go back to the “old look?”
  6. Licensing Hell. This one is probably related to number 2, but the terms of the End User License Agreements (EULAs) are confusing, in some cases too restrictive, and not well publicized. For example, the XP EULA gives you the right to make a one time transfer of the product to another end user. Does this mean that product cannot be transferred again, or does the new end user get the same right to make a one time transfer? Did you know that the license for Microsoft Office Professional 2007 gives you the right to install the software on one primary device and one portable device as long as both are for your own use (your desktop and laptop)? Many people who buy the software don’t know that. Of course, the licensing terms for client operating systems and productivity programs are pure simplicity when compared to those of some of the server products.
  7. “Best defense is a good offense” philosophy. When it comes to piracy, the proactive approach has gotten out of hand. Most people will put up with minor inconveniences designed to thwart pirates, such as having to enter product keys when you install software. But users balk when anti-piracy measures start getting in their faces at every turn. I’m not offended if you have locks on your doors and ask me to show ID before I can come in. But if you not only pat me down and test my DNA on entry but then do a strip search again every two hours “just to be sure,” I’m probably going to stop visiting you. I think Microsoft (along with other software companies) is reaching the point with anti- piracy technology where they’re defeating their purpose and driving away customers who would otherwise buy the software.
  8. The name game. This is a minor thing, maybe, but I wish the company would get on the ball when it comes to naming products. Windows Server 2003. Internet Security and Acceleration Server. Content Management Server. Windows Mobile 6. Windows Messenger. How boring can you get? We had one great product name: MOM (Okay, it’s an acronym for Microsoft Operations Server, but it’s a great acronym). Makes you feel all safe and taken care of. So what do they do? They change it to SCOM (Systems Center Operations Manager). And it’s not like they have no imaginations. These products all start out with wonderful code names like Wolfpack, Mantis, Bobcat, Crossbow, Tornado. Then they’re released with dull names. I suspect number 2 has a hand in this one, too.
  9. What’s a PR department for, anyway? Whatever it is, Microsoft’s doesn’t do a very good job of it. The company does all sorts of good things, but the news doesn’t seem to get out there. I would suspect that it’s the fault of the mainstream media just not printing the good stuff, except that I’ve dealt with Microsoft’s PR firm, a few times myself. I got little information, wrong information, no follow-ups. Their main PR strategy seems to be “no comment.” Of course, that may be because number 2 told them to say that.
  10. Better together … not so much. Customers (some of them, anyway) understand that if a hardware vendor doesn’t make drivers for a new OS or a third party software vendor’s products don’t work, it’s not Microsoft’s fault. But darn it, we expect Microsoft software to run properly on Microsoft operating systems and play well together. When it doesn’t (example: ISA Server doesn’t work with MSN Messenger voice and video), something’s wrong.

And honorable mention: If it’s broke, fix it – or at least let us know it’s broken. Sure, it may take a while to get a fix done and released, but in the meantime, if there’s a “known issue,” put the word out so customers will know it’s a problem with the software, not something they’re doing wrong. That would save a lot of people a lot of hours of weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth.

That’s my list. What did I miss? Let me know your favorite gripes.

Deb Shinder, Microsoft MVP [Maybe not for long… 😉 — Alex]