If it's good enough for Fido …

Vendors need to follow Microsoft's playbook

Want to put me to sleep? Show me a story about how company X used product Y to solve problem Z. Tales from early adopters often yield vicarious thrills for technologists at more conservative companies, but they never did anything for me. The photo of the confident-looking executive, standing in some hallway, is like an icon inspiring me to turn the page.

There is, however, one approach to marketing that grabs me every time. When a vendor with a major online presence makes a bet on its own technology, I pay attention. In industry parlance, this is called eating your own dog food. It is strikingly effective when done in an honest and transparent way.

Just skip the watered-down examples, such as auto dealers' policy of making salespeople drive the brands they sell, or Coca-Cola allowing no Pepsi products in corporate offices. If someone isn't empowered to choose, the choices they claim to make are irrelevant.

Microsoft, on the other hand, was able to show that Windows Server OS running on inexpensive PC servers works for one of the world's most-visited Web sites, microsoft.com. Although many analysts bemoaned the fact that companies were using Windows Server 2003 and .Net beta software to handle production tasks, I believe Microsoft's use of Windows for its high-traffic operations tipped many doubters over to Windows' side of the fence.

Microsoft's use of Windows and .Net would be irrelevant except for one thing: Its software project leads and on-line services managers do have the freedom to choose. If Windows Server had proved unstable in any way, I have no doubt that the company's on-line operations would have switched to BSD. Software project leads have no mandate to rewrite everything in .Net languages, even though salespeople are dying to tell customers that all of Office or SQL Server is written in C#.

Last February, I asked a conference room full of Microsoft technical leads how much of Windows Server 2003 is written in managed code (namely, .Net). The honest answer was very little. I like that answer better than a spin-heavy list of the obscure bits of Windows that are written in managed code.

The best recent example I've seen of dog food eating is Apple's iTunes Music Store. Every record company, brick-and-mortar chain, and third-party outfit that has tried to sell music online has failed, so the deck was stacked against Apple from the beginning. Apple did it: The service is an unqualified hit. And Apple used its own technology to pull it off: Xserve, OS X Server, Web Objects (Apple's Java server), and Xserve RAID.

There have been gangs of reporters salivating at the thought of Apple suffering an embarrassing service outage, loss of data, or security breach. If anything horrible happens, it will be reported worldwide within seconds. That publicity would not only hurt the music service, it would tell potential customers that Apple's server technology buckles under pressure.

It is an enormous gamble, one no company would undertake without complete confidence in its technology. That's why you don't see much public dog food consumption going on.

Apple's Xserve and Xserve RAID are handling a crushing workload inflicted by users disinclined to cut the service any slack. Microsoft.com fields hundreds of hits per minute with often-derided PC servers running Windows. Given that very few companies' IT operations are so abused and so scrutinized, that these vendors use their own technology -- especially new technology -- is powerfully convincing.

Copyright © 2003 IDG Communications, Inc.