Wednesday, 28 June 2006

Promises Kept, Credibility Gaps, and Microsoft: Are we Customers or Consumers?

As reported on Slashdot, quoting Quentin Clark's WinFS team blog (which spun the item mercilessly), and commented on widely, particularly by rjdohnert and Kamal:

WinFS is dead. What has been understood for a decade or so to refer to a "Windows File System", recently rechristened in Microsoftspeak as "Windows Future Storage" (to imply a lack of commitment to a product or in fact anything specific at all); in any form recognisable as the product/technology that has been hyped unrelentingly by Microsoft when they needed something to keep users (and developers) committed to the Next Windows Version, the plug has been pulled for what promises to be the very last time. This could be viewed in a number of ways; the least uncharitable explanation that concievably touches upon our shared reality is the subject of the remainder of this item.

Yet another case of Microsoft overpromising and underdelivering? Since they really don't care about providing great software to consumers — either end users or developers, there is no real penalty for failing to keep promises (though they do, in true Rove/O'Reilly fashion, try to spin the sucker positive as hard as they can, just to keep the yokels giving the slack-jawed "wow....they say it's cool" and, as Michalski originally wrote, crapping cash).

There is absolutely no reason to keep waiting for a relational file store in Windows or any product except SQL Server (and possibly some future version of OFfice that requires SQL Server). There is no reason whatever to believe Microsoft will keep ANY promise made to developers or end users, nor or in future. There is absolutely no reason to believe that any gee-whiz "technology preview" given by Microsoft will ever turn into a real, stable, usable product unless that product is announced (with a ship date) at the show or conference where the demo is made. Stability and usability of said product will, as with all previous Microsoft releases, have to wait for the second service pack.

What this boils down to, in other words, is a matter of trust, and commitment, and honesty, and all the values that a company which values its customers (and workers) is expected to incorporate into its ethos. That Microsoft deliberately chooses not to do this, as it has proven on numerous occasions, shows its complete and consistent contempt for those poor schmucks it sees as consumers, not customers.

We, as developers and users, have two choices. We can either continue to prove Microsoft right, gulping whatever product they deign to deliver, crapping out whatever cash they choose to take, abjectly powerless to exert any change over their behaviour. Or, we can refuse to play their game any more. There are other tools to develop products for Windows. Most of these have the additional benefit of being cross-platform.

"Cross-platform". There's a quaintly radical word in these times. The idea that people could use a variety of systems, tools, applications, to get their work done. Companies don't have to pay US$600 to buy an office "suite" with a heavy-duty word processor, spreadsheet, and yadda yadda for a manager whose work is primarily limited to short memos? Revolutionary. Selecting tools based on the needs of the user rather than the "default" "choice" for the entire organisation? If one choice of office layout doesn't fit everybody from the managing director to the secretarial pool, then by what logic should they use the same software tools to do their work? How ma many users of, say, Microsoft Word use more than a tiny percentage (say, 5%) of the "features" in the product? (According to surveys dating back to 2000, roughly 5%). By looking at the situation as a need to give each user tools appropriate for the task at hand, rather than imposing a uniform "solution" and adapting the task to the "solution"?

This whole WinFS affair is yet another bit of weight pushing the Good Ship Microsoft towards (or past, in some opinions) the tipping point. Those already on board might do well to examine their options; those considering extending their 'booking' may wish to reconsider. The main forces arguing that no 'realistic' options exist have been marketing-driven, rather than technically- or business-driven. Consumers blindly take whatever they're given; customers demand products that meet their needs. It is high time that those who purchase and use business computer software systems, and the tools to work with them, availa themselves of their options.