Will user interfaces be the downfall of Microsoft?

Microsoft has made, what I think are, mistakes in changing the user interfaces on their two most important products, Windows and Office. Each is doing it's best to drive away existing customers. The techies at Microsoft seem to lack an understanding of the needs of normal people and, thus, may have started the company on its inevitable decline. 

Computerworld may not be the place to make this argument as many readers, no doubt, enjoy playing with new software. But others don't. I'm speaking of the vast majority of the world whose jobs are not IT related. These people may use computers, even need them, but they view them as a tool to get their job done. Nothing more. As a consultant, I see this all the time in my clients.

Last week, in making a case for cloud computing, fellow Computerworld blogger Mark Everett Hall also spoke out for non-techies:   

Like me, working people think of their computers and the software they run as tools. Nothing more. So when it's time to upgrade an operating system or download a new application, we consider it a burden and a waste of our time.
For the most part non-techies know Windows XP. They're comfortable with it and changing is a hassle, perhaps one they can't afford. Or, one they just can't be bothered with.

In Vista, lots of stuff got moved around. Techies adapt easily. Normal people, not so much. User interface changes that seem trivial to techies are a pain to the rest of humanity.  

If non-techies ruled at Microsoft, they would have forced Vista to look and act as much like XP as possible. But no. Many Vista reviews, even positive ones, complained about the user interface changes saying much of it was change for change's sake. Big mistake.

And now Microsoft is doing the same with Windows 7 which, again, sports another new user interface, including big changes to the task bar.  

The techies in the Redmond home office seem unaware of the millions of people to whom the computer is just a tool, rather than the be all and end all of their existence.

Techies will tell you that most of the driver issues with Vista have been resolved. Perhaps that's true. But try telling that to a someone whose old printer doesn't work with their new Vista computer. Someone to whom a driver is the person that makes buses and trucks move. If non-techies had power at Microsoft they would have insisted that Vista support every printer that XP supports. But no, backward compatibility was sacrificed at the altar of a new driver model. The techies win, normal people lose.

Perhaps the best example of how clueless Microsoft is regarding user interfaces is, of course, Vista's annoying UAC. The concept is fine, but the implementation was too much of a pain. Microsoft tried to do the right thing, but did such a poor job on the user interface that some opted to turn off UAC altogether. It's not like Microsoft didn't know that UAC was annoying. I recall reading complaints about UAC while Vista was still in beta and Microsoft claimed they would make it less annoying when the OS was finally finished.

This pattern has continued with Office where the 2007 edition looks and acts drastically different from its predecessors (not to mention introducing new file formats). Compared to Office 2000, XP/2002 and 2003 it's as if Office 2007 threw all the cards up in the air and reshuffled the deck. Here too, I don't think Microsoft appreciated how entrenched the classic Office interface is and how difficult it will be for non-techies to use the newer software.

Perhaps there are yardsticks by which the user interface in Office 2007 is judged better, my point isn't to make that judgement. My point is simply that many people can't or won't change. By no longer selling Office 2003, Microsoft is forcing them to eventually change. Where will they go?

Years ago, IBM thought they ruled the world in PCs. After all, they had invented the standard. But the corporate ego was bigger than their power to lead. They introduced a new hardware design called Micro Channel and no one used it. While it solved a problem at the time, there were other ways to solve the same problem and the personal computer industry didn't like Micro Channel. IBM thought they could dictate to the industry, but they were wrong.

Can Microsoft dictate?

Many times they tried to put their foot down on Windows XP, but they keep extending the deadline for selling it. It's been fascinating to watch this tug of war, between what the market wants and what Microsoft wants.

Most companies would be glad to keep selling a product that customers want to buy. Not Microsoft.

Microsoft can force people to change, but they can't force them to change to the latest version of Windows or Office.

On many computers, I've installed the free Open Office, not so much because it's free but because its interface is similar to the older versions of Office and thus it's better suited for someone accustomed to that interface. Open Office will never be great at converting Microsoft Office documents, so I also install the free Office viewers. Often I've wished that Microsoft still sold Office 2003.  

When the time comes that Windows XP can no longer be pre-installed on new computers, Macs and Linux will both benefit, of course. How much? I can't wait to see. If someone has to learn a new operating system, they may as well do it on a system that's immune to most malicious software. I hear that the tech support from Apple is terrific, certainly the price on Linux can't be beat. And they can both run Open Office.

As techies, Microsoft builds software for techies. It's only natural. But, they may become irrelevant as normal people look elsewhere.

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