I’ve spent the last few days test-driving a Samsung Slate PC running Windows 8, quite similar to the Surface Pro tablet that Microsoft announced this week, and it’s clear to me that the concept of a tablet that can run both the new Metro interface as well as older Windows 7-style applications is a winner.
But concept and reality often have trouble converging according to plan, and Microsoft definitely has some major challenges in making its new platform a contender in the same weight class as Apple and Android. Importantly, it’s not technology that promises to make things complicated for Microsoft: turns out that part of the equation seems to be relatively solid. It’s the non-technical side that needs some serious help.
The equation I’m referring to is what I call the three rules of success in the mobile/cloud commerce world. The rules are based in part on what has made Apple, the Apple Store, and iOS such a major success, with a nod to how Amazon has been able to rule its increasing large corner of the e-commerce market. When Microsoft gets all three of these right, the market will have a new contender for Apple’s vaunted position as the premier mobile/cloud commerce company. Right now Microsoft has gotten one requirement right, and has a fighting chance at acing number two. But number three, perhaps the most important of all, desperately needs a major reset.
My first requirement for mobile/cloud success is a great user experience. This one I believe Microsoft has successfully nailed with Metro: this isn’t just another touch interface, but one that is designed in ways that iOS users might even be jealous of. For example, many of the important applications and system controls are operated by swiping the left and right screen edges, either with a finger if the tablet is on a stand or with the left and right thumbs if the tablet is being held in two hands. This makes navigation extremely simple and intuitive, and remarkably different than the more simplistic swiping afforded by iOS.
And then there’s the fact that Windows 8/Metro supports all the functionality of the Windows apps world as well: this is very much an OS for creating content as well just consuming it. I think from a usability standpoint this combination is a winner.
The second requirement is a great choice of apps to deploy on the new platform, and in this case it’s clear that Microsoft has a long long way to go to match the countless apps available to iOS or Android users. While this is not a trivial issue in the least, I believe Microsoft has more than a fighting chance to build out a large portfolio: as I wrote here, its plans to harness millions of existing Windows and Java developers promise at a minimum that large numbers of developers will be able to target the Windows 8 environment using the dev tools they already use. This apps question will clearly remain an issue for some time, but at a minimum the stage is set for a large body of developers to build a large body of apps for Windows 8/Metro, and hence for nailing mobile/cloud requirement two.
My final requirement is one that Microsoft looks like it has already gotten half right and half wrong, though getting one half without the other is a guarantee of failure. The requirement is relatively straightforward – provide an easy, relatively pain-free and relatively lucrative way for developers to sell their apps, and a concomitantly easy, pain-free, and simple way for customers to buy and deploy these apps on their devices. The plans for the Win 8 app store seem to favor developers in terms of making it easier to get apps approved than on the Apple Store as well as giving them a bigger slice of the revenue pie. That’s a good start, as both Amazon and the Apple App store have proven, the commerce model may be the most important of the three: it don’t mean a thing if it’s hard to go ca-ching. It’s as simple as that.
But the customer side of the Microsoft commerce experience has a long way to go, if my recent experience with the Slate is in any way representative of how things can go wrong on the consumer side, particularly in terms of how Microsoft wants to integrate its different online commerce systems. In a nutshell, three unforgiveable errors took place in the course of doing something as simple as buying a movie to watch during a recent business trip, and the sum of the three errors was a big fat fail for the commerce side of the Microsoft experience.
Problem number one is already pretty egregious: the Xbox back office accounting system where the Metro Video app sent me to buy a movie has a well-known bug in it, well-known because it was apparent once I talked to technical support that it had been encountered many times before. This little bug prevented me from linking a credit card to my account: I verified with my credit card company that the authorization went through on their end, just not on the Xbox side. That kind of makes it hard to actually buy a movie – and while tech support kindly spotted me the points I needed to rent the movie (points, as this is Xbox, a gaming site, so, one doesn’t apparently transact in actual currency – more on that problem later) – the only way I could buy any more movies for three days until they fixed the back office bug was to purchase a pre-paid Xbox card. This bug is so well-known that tech support even knows how long it takes to get it fixed.
That this happened in the first place makes it clear that something is rotten in Microsoft’s e-commerce strategy, especially as it’s apparently a known bug that for whatever reason remains unfixed. That this can and should be fixed goes without saying, and it should be easy enough, one would imagine, for a company with Microsoft’s tech firepower. How it can persist for more than a few days also makes me wonder if Xbox gamers are just more tolerant of this kind of nonsense, or if they have some other way to get the points they need from Microsoft. Regardless, it was strike one against Microsoft’s commerce model.
Strike two happened when I tried to finish watching the last two-thirds of the movie and the Slate Video app crashed, yielding up some arcane error code. Fair enough, this is not the GA release, I never expected the Metro experience to be bug free. But the problems emerged when I tried to contact Microsoft tech support to figure out how to resolve the problem. As I bought the movie from Xbox I tried to contact Xbox. First I spoke to the account management support people – they fumbled and hemmed and hawed and finally said I needed to speak to someone at Xbox Live support, as this was apparently an issue only they could resolve.
Okay, I thought, what do I know about Xbox and Xbox Live. But more importantly, why do I even have to know the difference to buy a movie? I should mention that support wanted to authenticate my account by asking me for the credit card I had provided, which meant I had to launch into the back office software story…. Luckily I had a security question that I had set up in my Microsoft Live account years ago that I actually could remember. On the second try.
By this time I had decided to download the movie onto to my Windows 7 laptop and watch it there. That should be easy, right? I bought the movie from Xbox, surely I could just move the download authorization to another device (something I can do with an audio book on my public library’s web site, so it should be easy, right?). But Xbox Live support punted on this as well: not only didn’t they understand what was happening on the Slate, they couldn’t help me download the movie to Windows 7. That, I was told, was a job for Zune support.
Zune? I was on a Metro tablet buying an Xbox movie that now needed support from Zune, which when last I checked was a discontinued iPod wannabe. (Actually, the brand has morphed into a digital media store, though why the brand was worth preserving is beyond me.) And herein lies the gist of problem two: Microsoft has two commerce sites trying to serve a single customer with a single goal, and their lack of integration makes the consumer experience more than just problematic. Pain in the ass is the best way to describe it. By now I had been trying to resolve this Slate problem for an hour, which meant that if I added the time it took to try to add a credit card to my Xbox account I had already spent two hours, pretty much the run length of the movie, without actually having seen the movie beyond the first 30 minutes.
So, now for Zune. There’s no telephone support for Zune, chat is the only way to communicate. But they had a fix: I had to download Zune for Windows 7, sign on (using my Windows Live account), and then find my movie and download it and run it on Zune. Right. I was on it.
So when I finally got that going, believe it or not I could no longer download the movie – the download timeframe had expired. Zune support generously offered to refund the points I had spent, but first we needed to verify my account using my credit card number! OMFG.
At this point I hope you’re laughing, because I was truly in stitches. This comedy of errors was beyond unbelievable. Luckily I knew the security question cold, so we got that settled quickly, the points instantly appeared, and my Zune download began. To be honest I’m sitting on airplane flying home daring myself to try to actually watch it. If you hear about a Virgin America passenger who ran amok the other night and starting eating his laptop you’ll know this story didn’t end well.
So on to problem three: the lack of an integrated customer experience. I have a Microsoft Live account that I can use to sign into all sorts of things. It has its own little graphical icon that appears when I sign on to use various non-commercial services at Microsoft (like registering for Microsoft conferences.) I had to use that same Live account for Xbox (a gaming site, though I’ve no interest in being a gamer), where it has its own funky Xbox avatar, and I used it again for Zune (another service I have no connection to), which created a third little graphic next to my account name. This multiple-personality disorder is just a mess, and is the nail in the coffin for Microsoft’s aspirations to beat Apple if it doesn’t get resolved. This disorder isn’t just a matter of signing on, of course. Buying movies with Xbox gamer points, making it truly hard to move content between different devices, not to mention the support morass – all this will help Tim Cook sleep well at night for some time to come.
The moral of the story is that Microsoft has innovated well on the tech side, but it has a long way to go on the apps side and, perhaps more so on the commerce side. While the groundwork has been laid for a critical mass of apps to emerge, I have concerns that the commerce side is showing Microsoft’s infamous siloes at their worst, and it may take a while for this mess to be resolved. It’s not just Win 8/Metro that’s in Release Preview, it’s the whole business model. My concern is that Microsoft is busily beavering away at making Win 8/Metro even better, and setting the ground work for a robust developer community while it’s asleep at the switch when it comes to the commercial experience.
Hopefully I’m wrong, because if I’m not my Slate will end up in the pile next to my HP Touchpad. It would be a shame to see such a good start go to waste.