Microsoft vs Customers and Itself
Microsoft should be trying to make it easier to use their technologies and to find new applications. Instead they are acting as if it is more important to limit the customers choices in order to preserve the obscellescent business model of Tellywood.08-Aug-2005

I've written about my recent problems with Comcast and Verizon.

It's more difficult to write about Microsoft because they play a much larger role in technology and there are many ways in which I find myself dependent upon their design decisions. I also used to work there which makes it a bit more personal and I care about the price of the stock even as I express my frustration and anger.

For now I am focusing on a particular aspect of Microsoft's strategy – the attempt to impose constraints on how I connect hardware and what devices I can use.

This is a foolish policy because it limits Microsoft's market and raises costs.

When I was at Microsoft in 1995 I observed that the problem with getting people to use the Internet was not cost – it was the difficulty of connecting the computers to the Internet. I also recognized the importance of connecting the computers within the home to each other and to a variety of devices (printers, phones, lights, etc). I saw past the marketing studies that homes wouldn't have more than one computer. What I did was to extend the Internet so that the home network was (almost) part of the Internet. The most important design decision was to do a very general network rather than focusing on a particular application. This is in sharp contrast with the current Media Center Edition which is really an application that infests the operating system.

Others had succeeded in making the computer monitor capable of acting as a very good TV monitor but the effort was undermined by trying to make the PC itself more like a TV. That meant having to get all the special wires connected just right. Even if you managed to get that all right you were still limited by the Set Top Box. The so called “Cable Card” might help with that but it still has to preserve the walled garden model.

As I wrote recently, Microsoft is attempting to assure that every element of the path Tellywood's bits follow is protected and in doing so requires you get the wires connected just write and only used approved devices. This is far worse than the assumption that homes would have only a single computer device – it limits the PC to being a lame TV and frustrates the development of the new applications vital to Microsoft's future.

Rather than making it more difficult to connect devices Microsoft should be putting all its efforts into extending connectivity. Rather than having flakey buses like USB and Firewire it should be embracing the End-to-End principle. The price for trying to be too helpful is seen when we connect a USB device only to get a cryptic message about needing to install some special driver in the operating system. Why should the operating system be involved in a relationship between consenting applications and devices? Why should I have to worry about connecting each device to a particular computer?

The relationships should be defined in software and not depend on the particular wires. I've long connected my printers on my home network but that is still the exception which makes no sense. It's far simpler to tell people to just plug in the printer and then use it. More effort is needed to remove the barriers to simplicity but that's frustrated when we use complex buses like USB or complex protocols like UPnP.

Unfortunately Microsoft seems to be more focused on assuring that users aren't allowed any flexibility – every piece of hardware must be authenticated even to run a simple utility. Recently I tried to download a “power toy” but first had to prove that I had a “genuine” copy of the operating system. It didn't help that their instructions were wrong or that the application had a generic name “setup.msi” which is confusing. Nor did it help that the transfer at less than 10% of the capacity of my Internet connection. I purposely said transfer, the more popular term is “download” but I want to emphasis that it should be a symmetric peer relationship.

Microsoft's real challenge is making their PCs both useful and usable. In 1995 I realized that while I could've built in a proprietary “hook” into home network in order to give Microsoft control but doing so would be foolish. Today there is no such constraint. Microsoft seems to be determined to hobble its users while at the same time assuming they know more than their customers and, in doing so, are assuring that their past is their future and in that future they will be the past.