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Customer Polarizing – Why Microsoft Will Always Be A Mediocre Giant

Filed Under Human Factors, Thought Stuff

Big Giant

I have come to grow very tired of Microsoft’s approach to building and marketing software to the masses, and here is the simple reason why:

When you build software for everybody, you build software for nobody.

I don’t remember where I picked up the term “customer polarizing” (I believe it was 37 signals), but it really resonated with me in terms of software. If you attempt to satisfy everyone, you will in the end satisfy no one due to feature bloat. And as we all know, feature bloat leads to UI bloat, which yields code bloat, which yields performance bloat….well you get the idea…it becomes an unusable, unmaintainable, piece of crap.

Now the reason why I say “mediocre giant” is because it is my belief that you can become very large and successful attempting to please everyone all the time as this is very alluring to potential customers.

However, you will always be mediocre (as apposed to great) because you will have never polarized anybody into either loving or hating your products.

Apple is a great example of this theory. They have products which drive people fanatical or left out in the cold. They will never put a SCSI port back on a laptop. They will never put a floppy drive back into a desktop. They are polarizing people, and as a result their “true customers” love them for it.

To take this a step further (just for a quick tangent), the majority of customers who demand these bastardizations of your products probably will not become a customer let alone a repeat customer and fan – so why attempt to please them in the first place and drive away your fans?

With the recent ASP.NET MVC seeming to be the first exception to this rule [in a long, long time] – Microsoft only will deliver software that is feature bloated to the point where it will work OK in 90% of business, instead of concentrating on software that works GREAT in 40% of businesses.

Just like the RoR team, concentrate on making GREAT products, even if at first they seem to be targeted at a small niche of people. Your raving fans will promote your name much farther than you can with any marketing effort, and you won’t feel as if you had to make a lot concessions with your product.

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6 Responses to “Customer Polarizing – Why Microsoft Will Always Be A Mediocre Giant”

  1. Dew Drop - July 7, 2008 | Alvin Ashcraft's Morning Dew on July 7th, 2008 6:47 am

    […] Customer Polarizing – Why Microsoft Will Always Be a Mediocre Giant (Max Pool) […]

  2. Shawn Oster on July 9th, 2008 10:41 am

    You can look beyond just ASP.NET MVC for Microsoft taking a more focused, love it or hate it approach to products. For one you have the XBox 360 which inspires a rabid polarization in everyone from teenage kids to financial analysts. They have a vision and they’ve stuck to it. Not including built-in wireless was a great idea, akin to the Air dropping the optical drive, and if you even glance at the gaming forums your eyes will seer with the blistering heat of how polarized that decision was.

    Another example is the Zune. The forums are full of people clamouring for this or that feature which would quickly bloat the software. In fact they took a huge risk in a new UI and using a broken heart/heart rating system vs. the traditional 5-star. This is an area Microsoft outdoes Apple at it’s own game because iTunes has become an ugly, bloated, over-featured slow beast and it’s not even that pretty.

    The latest Office is also a strong candidate for a polarizing piece of software. That was a *huge* UI shift to spring on millions of people and honestly took balls from such a huge company with such an established base. Changing the UI that completely was much more polarizing than Apple not having an optical drive in the Air because the Air is such a niche market while Office is everywhere.

    Of course I do know that feature bloat you’re talking about in Microsoft products, though that’s not just a Microsoft-only pitfall. It’s a pervasive issue that companies have to watch for because at first it really is so easy just to make something optional vs. rethinking a design or just saying, “Hey, that’s how it works, deal.” The only reason it’s so easy to bag on Microsoft is because they have so many products.

    What specific products are you thinking of that are mediocre due to trying to please everybody all the time (vs. just being plain mediocre)? Now I have almost a gut-level hate of WebForms but it’s problem isn’t trying to make everyone happy, it’s that it trys to force a Visual Basic, client-eventing model on top of request/response.

  3. Max Pool on July 9th, 2008 12:19 pm

    @Shawn – Good comments!

    First off, don’t mistake innovation for polarization. Just because a company takes a UI design a different direction does not necessarily imply polarization – but instead their level of being committed to standing by that decision. I would still agree with you though that the new Office Ribbon UI guidelines are a great example of polarization; however, we have yet to see the long term affects and how MSFT handles the heat as people attempt to adapt.

    Examples of MSFT bloat…let me count the ways –

    *Office (Excel and Word being big offenders)
    *And countless others (including those I was personally on) that died by their own weight before they even shipped…

    I am sure we all could find exceptions to my generalization, but in my experience you are correct in saying that many companies (just not MSFT) fall prey to this syndrome.

    Can anyone say Oracle or Crystal Reports?

  4. Shawn Oster on July 9th, 2008 7:01 pm

    Good points there, like all good debates it all comes down to definitions. Is polarization just a by-product of doing something different and being opinionated about it or is it something you are actually trying for? To me polarization is one of the effects of innovation, not a cause in and of itself (unless you just like pissing people off 🙂

    To take off on the 37signals guys they weren’t trying to be polarizing with Basecamp, they wanted a tool that worked for them and to grow in a style that kept the spirit and usefulness of the product instead of basing every release on customer requests which as you (and they) rightly point out often don’t quite give the same bang for the buck that the anti-fanboys seem to think it will. Same with Rails, same with Air, same with Zune or the 360. All products that have a core focus and have all come under heavy criticism and hate for not buckling under intense demand to turn the products into the lowest common denominator.

    Crystal Reports, oh brother is that a great example. Office is interesting because while people rarely use more than 10% of what it can do they all seem to use a different 10%. It’s such a broad and general product that honestly, do you really want it to be polarizing? I could go either way on that one. I think I’ve tried most of the Office replacements out there from OpenOffice to Google Docs to ZoHo and every time I find myself missing that one extra feature in Excel or Word and keep coming back to them. Plus Office is so ubiquitous that it’s dead simple to share docs vs. some of the hoops I’ve had using other apps. I could go either way on that one.

  5. Bookmarks about Microsoft on January 21st, 2009 3:00 am

    […] – bookmarked by 6 members originally found by pdip on 2008-12-23 Customer Polarizing – Why Microsoft Will Always Be A Mediocre Giant – […]

  6. loco on January 26th, 2010 3:23 am

    Let us please keep it simple. Microsoft is number one because for decades there was no competition, Microsoft even bought shares in apple to have a competitor so as not to appear a monopoly.

    Microsoft software has always been troubled but the lack of a genuine alternative has seen Microsoft windows become as a language and it’s users can use the language regardless of its idiosyncrasy to comunicte their needs.

    There may be more efficient languages around but if the one you use and understand works why learn another.

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