The Dark Side of Tech Enthusiasm

The Dark Side of Tech Enthusiasm

Sometimes you get what you ask for

It's interesting watching Microsoft trying to develop Windows 10 openly, and under the ever-vigilant eyes of its biggest fans. After six-plus years of secretive silence under the previous regime, this new more transparent approach is both laudable and welcome. But as Microsoft is discovering, the open approach also has a downside: its most vocal fans are also its most vocal critics when things don't go their way.

For a humorous (and not always suitable for work—you've been warned) look at the pitfalls of listening to your customers too much, consider College Humor's parody video of the Microsoft "Windows 7 was my idea" commercials. Unintentionally ironic—the team that built Windows 7 couldn't have cared less about getting user feedback, let alone implementing any of it—the video describes what happens when you actually let users design a product. You get a monstrosity that meets every need, in this case a "steam engine [that] barks like a dog, blows fire—but has a sprinkler, to put out the fire—[includes] a robot with semi-automatic photo cannons, [and] fireworks," among many other incompatible constituent parts.

Over-reacting to their predecessor's mistakes, the current Windows team has created a "Windows Insider Program," a sort of club or community where the company's eager-beaver fans can gather in online forums and discuss the pre-release Windows 10 builds that Microsoft has been providing since early October. And boy do they have feedback. And while some of it is useful, as I wrote in Here are the Top User Requests for Windows 10 a month ago, a lot of it is pretty terrible too.

We have to believe that Microsoft knew what it was getting into as the problems inherent with the Windows Insider Program are so immediately obvious. After all, the types of people would be attracted to such a program are not necessarily indicative of the wider user base or, perhaps more important, of Microsoft's most important customer base, enterprises and other business customers. Worse, they're going to react in predictable ways when they don't get what they want.

You can see this in the reactions to Microsoft's decision to abandon a power-user feature in the OneDrive sync client for Windows, a feature that confused average users—that is, most people—but delighted a small subset of power users. And you can see it in the outrage over the so-far superficial changes that Microsoft has made to Windows 10 in response to user feedback.

It's not just Windows 10, of course. And one might argue that Microsoft's slowness incorporating feedback into the product indicates it is aware of the pitfalls of simply saying yes to everyone.

But looking at Microsoft more generally, we're also seeing a strange upswell of outrage over the company's pragmatic support of popular mobile platforms like Android and iOS (iPhone/iPad) with mobile apps that sometimes arrive first (before they do on Windows) or with features that are currently missing on Windows. The theory here is that Microsoft is undercutting its own OS products—Windows and Windows Phone—by making Office and other mobile apps work better on other platforms.

I get that argument, sort of. But without getting into the weeds too much here and debating individual features, it's also fair to say that Windows already has the most full-featured Office version available. And Windows Phone? Who's going to work on Office documents—really work on Office documents—on a phone anyway? Put another way, how does the appearance of a feature here—stylus support in Office for Android, say—or a new app there—Office Mix showing up in mobile app form on iOS first—in any way diminish the experience of using Microsoft apps on Windows or Windows Phone?

It doesn't, not really. And instead of wanting Microsoft to be successful, what these alleged fans of the company really want is for Microsoft to do is to simply meet their own needs, rational or not. They're just highly technical special interest groups. And they are very vocal when they don't get what they want.

My contention is that Microsoft's most important customers—businesses—don't care about these petty issues. They are already struggling to support multiple OS platforms—Windows, Android and iOS—and are happy that the software giant is racing to make their lives easier. They've no doubt asked Microsoft to ensure that Windows 10 is an excellent upgrade for Windows 7, and not just for Windows 8, and that it retains and improves on the desktop focus of that release. And I think that Microsoft is responding to those needs.

As a power user and tech enthusiast, I understand the complaints, I do. And there are certain very specific issues—that OneDrive change I alluded to earlier, for example—that will impact me in negative ways going forward. But it's important to remember how these changes fit within the context of this new "mobile first, cloud first" era. Microsoft isn't just the Windows company anymore. And Windows and PCs are not necessarily the primary way that most people will consume computing resources going forward.

Point being, Microsoft isn't alone in needing to adapt to this brave new world.

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