Microsoft Office Delays, Complexities Are Killing The Brand (MSFT)

| About: Microsoft Corporation (MSFT)

By Carl Howe

Forbes has a very interesting opinion piece about Microsoft's New York event this week, which predated Redmond's announcement that it was also delaying availability of its new Office 12 suite until January 2007. The commentary reflected many of my opinions of Microsoft new Office products:

The new programs are phenomenally complex, with scores of buttons and pull-down menus and myriad connections among various applications. A Microsoft VP zipped through a demo, moving information from Outlook to Powerpoint to Groove to some kind of social networking program that lets you see how your colleagues and your colleagues' colleagues rate various Web sites.

Meanwhile, 500 tech buyers sat there in the dark, their eyes glazing over from the sheer mind-numbing pointlessness of most of this stuff. The audience laughed out loud when the Microsoft guy showed off a kludgey system that lets you fetch Outlook e-mail messages using voice commands from a cell phone.

The system has all the charm of those automated phone systems you encounter when you call customer service: Your call is very important to us. And while it is cool and futuristic to have a computer "read" your e-mail to you, uh, dude--we all have BlackBerrys anyway. In fact, many in the audience weren't even watching the voice-activated e-mail demo--they were checking mail on their BlackBerrys.

I think the point about the new Office user interfaces is particularly important. In its attempt to innovate with Office 12, Microsoft has broken nearly every user interface guideline I've seen. If you hated dynamic menu reordering in Windows, wait until you see the new Office. Nothing in the user interface is constant from one mode to the next, nor from one program to the next. I would have predicted that it would be one of the biggest productivity sappers of the year -- if it hadn't just been delayed until 2007.

But Daniel Lyons adds more fuel to the fire toward the end of the article.

Worst of all, I can't believe Microsoft actually held this big nonevent "event" only a few days before announcing another screw-up in Vista. If Ballmer knew he was about to announce a delay and still had this event, he's crazy. If he didn't know Vista was about to slip again, then Microsoft is in worse shape than anyone realizes.

And this was written before the Office slip was announced. Bloggers within Microsoft are already calling for heads to roll. And from a marketing point of view, they have it exactly right. After all, Microsoft sold lots of "Software Assurance" contracts on the basis of people paying an annual fee for three years to get the latest upgrades of Microsoft software during that period. And for most people who bought those services at about 1/4 the list price of the software per year, they got nothing. That may be good for the bottom line, but bad for the IT executives who paid for those contracts, and therefore, bad for the Microsoft brand.

Let's face it. If Microsoft made cars and waited five years (and by 2007, six years) between model years, its senior management would all be fired, and its business bankrupt. And while its huge profits and cash hoards currently spare it from these consequences, at some point both consumers and investors will realize that Microsoft is in the same position that American car companies were in the 1970s: bloated, arrogant, and out of touch with what consumers want. And events like those in the last week will only make that day come sooner.

Full disclosure: I have no financial interest of any kind in Microsoft.