Microsoft Backpedaling Leaves Opening for Customer Revolt

I've been a Microsoft watcher for more than a decade, but I've never witnessed the company backpedal on so many key initiatives as it has this year. 2001 might well go down as the year that Microsoft blinked, with the company making bold steps to bolster its bottom line at any cost, only to publicly reverse many of those decisions months later. Microsoft reversed two such decisions—the controversial Microsoft Licensing 6.0 and retiring Windows NT 4.0-based MCSE certification—this past week. And if you deploy Microsoft technology in any way, both of these decisions will likely affect you.

Microsoft Licensing 6.0 has become the bane of most corporations, regardless of size. In the past, Microsoft offered software discounts to large companies making volume purchases—a practice common in many industries. But Microsoft had discovered that companies tend to upgrade on glacial timelines for a variety of commonsense reasons. So regardless of the bi-yearly releases of Windows and Office, many companies are still running older versions of these products.

Microsoft decided that a 2-year upgrade cycle was key to its continued financial strength, so the company devised Licensing 6.0 to give its volume-licensing customers an incentive—no, more of a directive—to start upgrading, and fast. Originally scheduled to go online at the beginning of October, Licensing 6.0 was met first with disbelief and then with downright outrage. Despite Microsoft's assurances that only 20 percent of its customers would experience higher costs, an independent report by Giga Information Group and Sunbelt Software said that most customers were looking at a hefty cost hike thanks to the changes. And some customers are apparently starting to look at alternatives.

What bothers me most about this affair is how Microsoft has responded to the complaints. In the company's view, customers just need more time to evaluate the plan. Microsoft believes that most people will accept the program when the new deadline—July 31, 2002—approaches. Granted, the company removed some problems with Licensing 6.0—such as a required upgrade to the lackluster Office XP, for example—but the basic premise is still bogus. Microsoft's customers want to upgrade on their schedules, not Microsoft's schedule.

Another customer complaint rose from Microsoft's decision to retire its NT 4.0-based MCSE certification. Last year, the company said that this certification would expire December 31, 2001, giving IT professionals a December 31, 2000, deadline to pass the exams. The company extended this deadline to February 2001 so that fully booked testing centers would have more time to administer the last NT 4.0 exams.

Bowing to customer complaints, Microsoft has belatedly decided not to retire the NT 4.0-based MCSE certification but will designate it appropriately, giving potential employers a heads-up about which Microsoft technologies an applicant is proficient in. Microsoft will designate an NT 4.0 MCSE as an "MCSE on Windows NT 4.0" indefinitely; the company will designate Windows .NET Server, Windows XP, and Windows 2000-based MCSEs as "MCSEs on Microsoft Windows 2000."

This commonsense approach to the problem is entirely mitigated, unfortunately, by its timing. Had Microsoft made this change a year ago, users could have intelligently decided which course to pursue. But doing this after the fact, locks existing certified professionals in time, and no one has been able to take NT 4.0-based exams since February. If you're hoping to parlay a certification into a raise or new job, I hope you picked the right OS during crunch time last year. Regarding the Windows .NET, XP, and Win2K Server-based exams, Microsoft says that Win2K MCSEs won't need to be recertified on the new OSs, and the company says it plans to continue offering exams for .NET Server, XP, and Win2K concurrently.

Although watching Microsoft flounder publicly is disconcerting, there is one silver lining: At least the company is listening to customers, if only after the fact. With enough complaints and feedback, maybe Microsoft will begin to listen to us before it institutes another far-reaching policy that affects millions of users.

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