Ballmer Talks Software and Blueberry Muffins

In a sometimes-strange open letter posted to the Microsoft Web site this morning, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer discusses how his company needs to do more to better serve its customers. Early in the letter, Ballmer discusses his only non-Microsoft job when, at the start of his career, he marketed brownie mix and blueberry muffin mix for Proctor & Gamble (which goes unnamed in the letter for some reason). Software, Ballmer says, is just like "cake mix, soft drinks, shampoo, and so on"--products that need to be marketed in ways that satisfy customers. And if the marketing is done correctly, he concludes, the same products will satisfy consumers for decades.

"Customers expect the same high quality and reliability in computing devices and software as they do in consumer products," Ballmer notes. But unique concerns in the software world make reliable, high quality releases difficult. Software revisions often aren't around long enough to be tested fully, let alone perfected, he says, because new versions with better features are always right around the corner. Given this historical software-development problem--frankly, one that Microsoft has prolonged over the years with product pre-announcements and various technological vaporware--Ballmer says that the company has decided to implement three near-term objectives that will improve Microsoft's products and better satisfy its customers.

1. Obtain more feedback from customers about their experiences
   Microsoft is already the leader in incorporating customer feedback into its products; the company will now work to ensure that customers more vigorously use its software error-reporting tools--which are built into Windows XP, Windows .NET Server (Win.NET Server) 2003, and Microsoft Office. Already, however, the tools have had a dramatic effect. Ballmer says that a relatively small proportion of bugs cause most of Microsoft's software errors. "About 20 percent of the bugs cause 80 percent of all errors, and--this is stunning to me--one percent of bugs cause half of all errors," he reports. In XP Service Pack 1 (SP1), Ballmer notes, Microsoft removed 29 percent of the errors involving application incompatibility. And error reporting helped Microsoft remove more than 50 percent of all the errors in Office XP SP2.

2. Offer customers easier, more consistent ways to update their products
   Hotfixes and service packs are still pretty painful affairs for many customers, so Microsoft is working on simpler upgrading tools that will be significant improvements over what's available today. Referred to internally as software update and management services, this technology includes Windows Update, Office Update, and Microsoft Software Update Services (SUS). XP SP1 contains a major improvement: Customers can not only download but also automatically install crucial security patches while their machines are idle.

3. Provide customers with more effective, readily available support and services
   Microsoft will build more Web tools that explain and fix customer problems. "We want to enable customers to look up the history of their error reports and our efforts to resolve them," Ballmer writes. "And we're trying to create easy ways for customers to send us more nuanced feedback about their experience with our products--not only about crashes, but also about features that don't work the way or as easily as people would like."

So what does all this rhetoric mean? Nothing yet, of course. But if we can take Ballmer at his word, Microsoft apparently wants a closer relationship with its customers, big and small, and wants to provide better feedback about the steps the company is taking to resolve customer problems. As a behemoth of a company (with about 50,000 employees) and a convicted monopolist awaiting its legal fate, Microsoft faces various image problems even as competitors such as Apple Computer and the Linux community rally to attack various markets the software giant once had sewn up. No matter how you feel about Microsoft, the company's image comes straight from the top, and any attempt by Ballmer to reach out to the real people who use his products is welcome.

For the full text of Steve Ballmer's letter, go to the Microsoft Web site.

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