Sorry, Microsoft, but consumers just don't like you

“So, what do you think of Windows 8?” If I had a dollar for every time that question has been asked of me, I’d be a rich man. Sadly, those who ask for my opinion in that regard rarely do me the courtesy of paying for my time, but invariably, once they’ve heard my thoughts on Microsoft’s latest operating system, they see fit to return the favour by sharing their own opinions with me.

In my professional and social activities, I get to hear these musings from a pretty broad range of individuals – from the Trend Micro reps I chatted with at Mobile World Congress, to the Huawei executive I bumped into at the airport, to the staffer from The Telegraph that I drunkenly tried (and failed) to chat up on a night bus, to friends and family.

I hear from those who have bought shiny new Windows 8 notebooks; those who have upgraded their older PCs to the latest Windows version; those who are wondering if they should upgrade; and those who use Macs and despise Windows. Everyone, it seems, has an opinion.

With few exceptions, those opinions are far from positive. Those who have used Windows 8 express frustration; the dichotomy between the Desktop and Metro is confusing, the Start button is missing, the apps are lacking. Those who are on the fence express apprehension; they’ve heard less than glowing reviews about Windows 8 from friends and in the media, and are nervous about taking the plunge. Those who have no intention of ever using Windows 8 express satisfaction; what better vindication of their own choice, after all, than to know that the path not taken leads only to woe?

Whomever I speak with, the common factor in almost all of the conversations that I have about Windows 8 is the impression of negativity that seems to have pervaded consumer consciousness. There is no love, no affection, no emotional attachment whatsoever, it seems, among the overwhelming majority of consumers for Windows.

New Windows devices will keep on emerging - but are they what consumers want?

Of course, my anecdotal ramblings can hardly be used to declare universal consumer antipathy towards Windows 8 across the entire market. There is, you’ll no doubt be relieved to hear, more to it than that.

Earlier this month, research firms Gartner and IDC released figures which pointed to a significant fall in global PC shipments of between 11.2% and 13.9% over the last quarter. This drop was far higher than expected; IDC had previously predicted a decrease of 7.7%. But, I hear you say, but, but, but… Microsoft just posted record revenues of $20.49bn for Q1, and – and – the Windows division reported an increase in revenues of 23%! So Windows revenues were up even as PC shipments were down – Microsoft is obviously doing something right, right?

The story is more complex than those figures suggest. As Charles Arthur, technology editor at The Guardian, explains, $1.1bn of the $5.7bn revenue for the Windows division was deferred from revenues generated by the pre-launch $15 Windows 8 upgrade offer given to those purchasing Windows 7 PCs in mid-2012. Business sales of Windows 7 licences to companies migrating from Windows XP - reacting to the final death knell of its demise next year - also gave things a boost, as did sales of Microsoft’s Surface tablets, which also come under the Windows division.

Revenues from this mid-2012 promotion contributed to Windows division revenues in Q1 2013

That Windows division revenues have been propped up by a pre-launch promotion, Windows 7 enterprise sales and Surface hardware sales doesn't exactly point to Windows 8 being a runaway success among consumers since its launch. Whichever way you spin the numbers, Surface - with Windows RT and Windows 8 Pro - hasn’t exactly taken the market by storm. While Surface sales helped to top up Windows division revenues, it’s widely believed that Microsoft has sold fewer than 1.5m of its tablets since launch last year.

In the last quarter of 2012, Apple sold 22.9m iPads. This is an unfair comparison like-for-like, of course, as the Surface launched halfway through that quarter, in far fewer markets than those in which the iPad is sold – but it puts into perspective just how large the gap is between sales of Microsoft’s tablets and those of its fiercest rival.

Things aren’t much better for Microsoft in mobile, which has largely been a consumer story so far, although businesses are starting to adopt Windows Phone, albeit slowly. Fans of the Windows Phone platform may point to the success that Nokia recently announced, in revealing that sales of its Lumia handsets jumped 27% over the previous quarter to 5.6m units. But to put that figure into context, the AdDuplex advertising network revealed earlier this month that Nokia represents 80% of Windows Phone sales, which points to total sales across the platform of around 7m for the first three months of the year. This might sound like a lot, until you consider that Samsung sold 10m Galaxy S III handsets in the two months up to January 14 this year, with total sales now in the region of 50m. 

Windows Phone is growing, but not fast enough. It hasn’t helped Microsoft’s cause that it hit the reset button on its mobile platform when it dead-ended Windows Phone 7. Many people – especially those who bought the then-new Lumia 900 just a few months before being told that it, like other WP7 handsets, wouldn’t be upgraded to Windows Phone 8 – were furious over that debacle. Many who had previously sung Windows Phone’s praises turned to badmouthing the product to anyone who would listen. Much of the good will that Microsoft had built up among early adopters was quickly incinerated; Microsoft naysayers had a field day.

Microsoft's great hope for Windows Phone lies in emerging markets, with billions of potential sales up for grabs, particularly at the lower end of the market. But in these price-sensitive markets, cheaper Android handsets and well-featured 'semi-smart' devices like the Nokia Asha range may well present a more appealing prospect. There have been some successes in more mature markets; countries such as Italy and Finland have seen Windows Phone soar into double-digit market shares, but in North America, Nokia Lumia sales fell to a pitiful 400,000 devices - a shocking 42.8% drop over the previous quarter's sales across the continent.

The less said about this, the better...

The problem that Microsoft faces in trying to market its products to consumers is that people are undeniably willing, almost to the point of being eager, to believe the worst about it.

Look at Google, for example, which has faced plenty of accusations over privacy concerns in recent years, and is now dealing with numerous investigations over possible anti-competitive behaviour. Consider Apple too, which had to deal with the iPhone 4 ‘Antennagate’ furore, and the embarrassingly poor quality of its Maps app. Yet in these instances, and others, consumers have quickly moved beyond these companies’ controversies, and returned to faithfully buying their products in the millions.

But consumers seem to have curiously long memories when it comes to Microsoft. The company’s frequent brushes with antitrust regulators, and its monolithic and often arrogant reputation, remain etched in the broader consumer consciousness as an affirmation that Microsoft is the big, evil conglomerate attempting to control and manipulate its way to the top. It’s perhaps fair to say that few consumers would articulate their impressions of Microsoft with specific reference to its anti-competitive actions of yesteryear, but fewer still would have kind words to say about what the company has since become if ‘antitrust’ and ‘Microsoft’ were uttered in the same sentence.

To put it simply, people don’t really like Microsoft. For the most part, they have no reason to. When commentators write about the “post-PC era” and the imminent death of Microsoft, others leap to the company’s defence by pointing to its immense strength in business and enterprise. But from a consumer viewpoint, this in itself represents a significant part of the problem.

Hundreds of millions of people use Windows operating systems at work; it’s a functional medium for them to perform the tasks that need to be completed. But workers who use Windows don’t like Windows; they don’t love using Office. For the most part, they’re completely indifferent to it; when it goes wrong, they get annoyed by it. Windows and Office may be a key part of keeping the world turning with its presence in just about every industry and sector in the world, but for the most part, the only emotional responses it elicits are negative ones.

It may not be fair, but for many, this is the first thing that comes to mind when they think of Windows.

Once we accept this simple truth, the problem that Microsoft faces in winning over consumers becomes easier to understand, though no easier to address. Consumers hear about how their friends and family love their iPads; but when the persistent impression that they retain of Windows is tainted by the Blue Screen of Death and having to call the IT department to resolve a problem on their workstation, the prospect of choosing a Windows tablet over an iPad becomes far less appealing.

Consumers love their phones; they’re incredibly personal devices with which many of us form an almost irrational connection, feeling discombobulated when we lose them or run out of battery – but when the underlying impression of Windows is far from positive, why, oh why, would consumers want to have Windows on their phones? Hell, people even like using Google, as illogical as that sounds - I've heard far more non-techy users sing the praises of Google Search, Maps, Shopping or Gmail than those who have tried using equivalent services from Microsoft.

Perhaps the only major Microsoft brand that consumers have any strong, positive emotional connection with is Xbox. For years, the company kept it at arm’s length from the rest of its operations, with only limited references to its Microsoft lineage, evidently recognising that drawing a connection between the two might do more harm than good. More recently, Microsoft has seen the value of the equity it has built in the Xbox brand, giving the console’s dashboard a Metro-style update, and rebranding and integrating its entertainment services into its phone and PC offerings.

Metro – or whatever the hell Microsoft wants to call it these days – is the glue that binds its consumer offerings together: Windows Phone, Windows 8, Windows RT and Xbox, along with its various online services, such as Outlook.com and SkyDrive. The unprecedented integration of all of these services, working harmoniously together with a unified visual experience is key to winning over the hearts and minds of consumers.

The imminent launch of the next-generation Xbox – along with devices that are less focused on gaming, and more on consumption of content, such as the ‘Xbox Surface’ tablet and ‘Xbox TV’ set-top box – will help to strengthen the company’s consumer credentials. But up against its more established and entrenched rivals (particularly the iPad and Apple TV), it remains to be seen just how great the impact of these products will be in winning over consumers to Microsoft’s other complementary products.

Is Xbox Microsoft's last great hope at winning over the hearts and minds of consumers?

Microsoft is also working tirelessly to revolutionise its overall approach to development of its customer-facing products. Neowin’s senior editor, Brad Sams, has been closely following the company’s efforts in this respect, as it focuses on a more regular and frequent cycle of updates to ensure that it doesn’t fall behind in its efforts to stay competitive with its rivals.

There’s evidence too that the company is paying closer attention to user feedback; the Start button may soon return in Windows 8.1 in a significant gesture to users (albeit an almost entirely superficial one, since the restored button will simply perform the same function as the ‘invisible’ button at the bottom left hot corner: launching the Metro-style Start screen). Users may even be able to bypass the Metro environment almost completely by booting their PCs directly to the Desktop.

But will this make any difference to consumers?

Start, again - the greatly missed button looks set to make a comeback in Windows 8.1.

The way that we use devices is changing rapidly. Getting the most from the web no longer requires a PC with a home internet connection; being productive no longer requires a computer with Microsoft Office. The iPad – and the legions of Android tablets on the market – are all selling just fine without Office to boost their productivity credentials, and while there are certainly those that prefer to work on a full-size notebook, plenty of others have acclimatised to getting work done on an tablet. Microsoft's rival smartphone platforms, meanwhile, perform most of the essential roles that users demand on a day-to-day basis, with many thousands of apps not yet available on Windows Phone.

To paint this picture in broader strokes, users are becoming increasingly accustomed to life beyond Microsoft.

In greater and greater numbers, users are discovering that they no longer need PCs to do what they need to do, as the substantial fall in PC shipments shows. While Windows remains an essential tool in the workplace, the draw to Windows for individuals spending their own money isn’t so powerful. When other devices that perform all the same tasks and run all the same apps – and more – are available with iOS and Android, the prospect of owning a Windows tablet just isn’t that appealing; the idea of owning a Windows Phone even less so.

Many of the apps seen here don't exist yet - and that... that's a problem.

It’s hard to imagine how this situation might change. The consumer tech industry is engaged in a battle of ecosystems, and in addition to the problem of antipathy that Microsoft faces, it also has to deal with the continuing reality that its ecosystem is still lagging far behind those of its principal rivals. Important apps – the ones that matter to users – are either still missing on Microsoft’s platforms, or arriving weeks and months behind their launch on iOS and Android. This sad state of affairs only reinforces the perception problem that Microsoft is up against.

Microsoft is in no danger of going away any time soon, and its new focus on software-as-a-service and extensive efforts to establish a world-leading cloud solution through Windows Azure will ensure its continued relevance to organisations for many years to come. But in the consumer space, Microsoft faces a hostile audience that has become accustomed to a brave new world of ecosystems that have so far offered far more than it has been able to deliver.

One small step into a brave new world of computing? Or one giant leap backwards?

It’s hard to not feel sorry for Microsoft – or at least as sorry as one can feel for a company that’s announced record multi-billion dollar revenues. There’s still much to criticise in their approach, of course. One has to wonder whether Windows Phone, for example, might be doing better if it wasn’t burdened with Windows branding; and there are oddities and annoyances like the appallingly tardy arrival of the updated online calendar, which was hardly worth the wait, or the sad state of the Mail and Xbox Music apps on Windows 8.

But the company is evidently working hard to change its ways, and the speed at which it’s been able to effect those changes has been, frankly, stunning for a multinational corporation of its size, particularly one that had become so bloated, lazy and complacent for too many years. Things are improving, across the board, and at a far greater pace than ever before. The improvements in Online Services and Office 365 especially are huge, and Microsoft is already implementing an incredible, ambitious strategy to ensure that those products don't stagnate, but rapidly improve even further over time. 

But no matter how quickly things get better, it feels like Microsoft will be playing catch-up in the consumer space for a long, long time to come. The Blue wave of updates to Windows 8/RT and Windows Phone already sound outstanding, but we're still months away from seeing them finalised and released to all end-users. While a considerable improvement on previous Windows releases, this speed of delivering improvements is far too lethargic when the products are in great need of more, regular enhancements to match fast-moving competitors. 

The tragedy, such as it is, is that consumers have no sympathy for Microsoft's plight, no appetite to give it the benefit of the doubt, no patience to wait for things to improve. Can Microsoft pull off the impossible, and accelerate its pace of change and the scale of its improvement even more? Can it improve so quickly and so significantly that it actually comes to exceed the expectations of consumers? Paul Thurrott probably put it best: "As Microsoft has shown again and again, you can't count out a firm that does its best work when under fire." 

Perhaps, one day, things will be different and Microsoft will have caught up, convinced the world that’s it not so big, bad and evil after all, and finally be ready to win over the hearts and minds of consumers. But when Microsoft's rivals keep on showing us amazing new devices and features every couple of months, it's far more likely, of course, that by then we’ll have all moved on to bigger and better things.

We consumers are such a fickle bunch. 

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