Vista's Lessons for Microsoft
Microsoft says Windows Vista, the newest version of its franchise product, is a roaring commercial success. Perhaps. It's also been a model in bad public relations. Vista has come under withering criticism across the Internet, with consumers hurling complaints about incompatible hardware and software, suspected bugs, and design mistakes. Independent polls suggest the negative buzz could stall Vista's adoption and encourage consumers to consider alternatives to what in the past has been an inevitable march to a new Windows version.
Here are seven lessons Microsoft should draw from Vista's bumpy introduction:
Bow to the blogs. New versions of Windows have always drawn gripes, but this time the volume of sneering is amplified, partly because of blogs and Internet forums that hardly existed when Windows XP appeared five years ago. Among other things, Microsoft is a victim of anecdote, which analyst Sam Bhavnani at Current Analysis West calls the "newly unsilent minority."
Microsoft says numbers show Vista succeedingreturn rates are low, demand remains high, and crash reports relatively few, says Brad Brooks, marketing manager for client software at the company. But he concedes that Microsoft needs to figure out how to better engage and respond to blogs and forums.
Give critics less ammo. Brooks says Vista came with drivers for more hardware, and was compatible with more software titles, than any previous version. But there were many holesproblems with commonplace printers, snafus with dominant software such as iTunes, and high-profile glitches with expensive graphics cards that are popular with gamers and bloggers. Blame rests partly with companies outside Microsoft, which depends on them to update their wares to work with Vista.
But Microsoft scrambled too late in Vista's development. Final test versions of Vista were more like earlier betas of XP, sowing doubt and confusion for those outside companies trying to keep up, says Michael Silver, a market analyst at Gartner. The Web's blogs and forums give new transparency to anecdotal problems; Microsoft must cut down on the anecdotes.
Give customers more to work with. Many complaints center on Vista running too slowly or taking too long to start and shut down. Most of those are likely to be from consumers with the minimum hardware that Microsoft says will run Vista. The new system needs a lot of power and memory, and Microsoft shouldn't try to push it onto computers that don't have enough. Consumers are entitled to the confidence that Vista will run well on any new computer on which it's loaded, without having to devise their own upgrades.
Simplify. Vista comes in too many flavorsthree for consumers alone. It's an effort to milk more profits; many consumers, for instance, opt for the high-end Vista Ultimate because they don't want to be disappointed by missing out on something. But after paying Ultimate's price ($400 full, $260 upgrade), it's easy to be disappointed. Plus, buying a PC is complicated enough; customers shouldn't be baffled further by Vista alternatives.
Break it up. Windows is just too big to manage as a single, universal project. Microsoft needs to slice the system into smaller pieces for future upgrades and take better advantage of the Internet's ability to deliver those updates. The company resists the notion of selling new features across the Web, offering only security and bug fixes. But the stumbling at the end of Vista's development, when whole systems for handling graphics and other functions were being rewritten, indicate that the project was too big for even the world's largest software company.