Wishful thinking won't reverse Microsoft's misfortune

Microsoft advocates ignore new power of users in believing Surface tablet will improve with better marketing or in phantom update

I had an argument on Twitter this week with ZDnet's biggest Microsoft advocate, Ed Bott, as well as with U.K. tech journalist Mary Branscombe and a Windows 8 developer. The subject, more or less, involved the Microsoft Surface tablet -- you know, the tablet that is hard to use and almost no one is buying but because it comes from Microsoft and runs Windows, it gets taken seriously.

They were suggesting that a new version of the Surface reportedly under development at Microsoft will change the game, transforming this lame mutt into a winning greyhound. It's possible -- Microsoft has a history of doing a product wrong several times until it finally gets it right, such as Windows itself and, well, Windows. The truth is that its best products were good from the get-go; Word, Excel, and the Xbox come to mind. In any event, to count on a future version bringing a product back from the edge is dumb. Microsoft has had more products that didn't finally get it right than have.

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As is typical on Twitter, the argument was sloppy and eventually devolved: With 140 characters, minus the handles in the replies, you can only make a blanket assertion or state a fact, not craft a coherent argument. But the pro-Surface arguments boiled down to "the next version will get it right," "it's actually good and some real marketing effort would reveal that truth to the world," and "if only a bunch of hardware makers sold Windows tablets." Never mind that Microsoft has spent several hundred million dollars marketing the Surface, to no effect, so the problem is not a failure of publicity. It had most PC makers creating Windows 8 and Windows RT tablets, too, but most have given up in (often public) frustration and disgust. Scratch that theory as well.

The truth is that both the Surface RT and Surface Pro are badly inferior products compared to iPads and the premium Android tablets, which also cost less. Users are being rational in picking the better products. Yes, there are tunnel-vision IT folks who want only to deal with Windows, so they keep hoping for Microsoft to pull a rabbit out of it tattered hat, but users rightfully ignore them. And there are fanboys who only see good in the companies they love. Love is indeed blind.

Passion for a product is great, but not when it blinds you. Bott and Branscombe are smart people, and I respect them. But it's also clear that Bott is blindly in love with Microsoft, so he can't see the world as it really is. (Branscombe's experience is broader, despite her current Microsoft infatuation.)

I'm known for my current preference of Apple products, and I recognize the power on your judgment of liking a product that fits how you work and think. But my loyalties have changed over the years -- I was a big Windows XP fan, for example, and was hired many years ago at Macworld precisely because I didn't drink the Apple Kool-Aid. I've even written a Windows 8 book, like Bott, so I have skin in several games, unlike Bott. My point is that we all have preferences, but that shouldn't blind us.

The truth is that it's harder to fool users these days or get them to buy inferior products -- at least those that cost real money. Marketing won't fix that. The product has to be right or at least good. What good means is relative and not always logical, but that doesn't matter.

For example, in our Twitter debate, I admonished Branscombe and Bott for suggesting that the next version of the Surface RT would cure its woes. "Promises, promises," I wrote. I cited Windows Phone, which after three versions is still a market failure. Branscombe responded that people like the Nokia Lumia Windows Phones. They do, but they're not buying them. The newest Lumias have an amazing camera, but that's not why people buy smartphones. Windows Phone's interface is initially pretty, but the OS is not very capable and the apps are poor. Most reviewers agree on this, even if they (like me) appreciate some of Microsoft's user-interface innovations. Users get all of this, and their purchasing behavior shows it.

Waiting for the messiah version of the product is foolhardy, as BlackBerry has discovered to its likely demise. Believe it or not, there's a correlation between an inferior product and poor sales.

The bottom line: Thanks to the consumerization trend that has shifted more technology decision-making to users, bad products will fail most of the time. IT or a dominant provider can't force-feed us inferior products as they sometimes could in the past. Nokia used to be the world's largest provider of cellphones, which adopting Windows Phone has not made true again; if any company could have forced Windows Phone on the world, it was Nokia. Yet it can't.

Whether you're Microsoft, Apple, Google, Nokia, BlackBerry, Samsung, Dell, Sony, Hewlett-Packard, Oracle, SAP, IBM, EMC VMware, Amazon.com, or Joe's Pizza, you need to be clear that the product matters fundamentally to its success, even if not all solid products succeed. Marketing can help a good product, but not fix a bad one. And wishful thinking can do neither. If you don't appeal to and satisfy the user, you're out of the game.

This article, "Wishful thinking won't reverse Microsoft's misfortune," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Galen Gruman's Smart User blog. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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