Microsoft's drip-drip-drip Windows communications strategy dubbed a washout

Interview spree by Windows' CFO brings little new information to the table -- and that's a big problem for everyone in the ecosystem, argues analyst

Microsoft today announced it had sold 100 million copies of Windows 8, its first statement on sales milestones since January.

In a blog post and interviews with several influential bloggers and media outlets such as the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, Tami Reller, the CFO and head of marketing for the Windows division, went on a mini publicity spree, touting that sales figure, promising changes later this year with an update code-named "Blue," and reasserted the company's dedication to the sluggish Windows RT market.

But except for the 100-million milestone -- which was on par with sales of Windows 7 six months after its October 2009 launch -- Reller provided no new information, said Patrick Moorhead, principal analyst with Moor Insights & Strategy.

And that's a big problem.

"I think this is a terrible communications strategy," said Moorhead of the less-information-is-better approach Microsoft has taken the last several years, and that in his eyes, it continues to adhere to. While secrecy and news management can be used to advantage by some firms -- Apple was at the top of Moorhead's list there -- he argued that Microsoft's attempt to duplicate the strategy has created all kinds of problems, perceived and real.

"Only Apple can play Apple. I don't think Microsoft makes a very good Apple," Moorhead said.

"Microsoft relies on a large ecosystem that's very diverse," he said, contrasting it with the smaller universe of Apple developers and resellers, the Cupertino Calif. company's lock on its own hardware, and Apple's almost-exclusive play in the consumer space. By comparison, Microsoft has a huge audience of developers, hundreds of OEM partners, and both enterprise and consumer customers to inform. "Microsoft has to generate confidence in that ecosystem to get everyone excited, and to do that it has to keep that ecosystem informed. But [Reller's statements] just seems more of the same."

Indeed.

Many of the points that Reller made in the Microsoft-hosted blog post and in interviews were repeats of what other executives have already said.

While Reller used the "Blue" moniker -- saying that it would appear "later this year" -- and noted that the update would "respond to the customer feedback that we've been closely listening to," code for an assumed restoration of the Start button and perhaps a boot-to-desktop option -- neither was news: Soon-to-depart CFO Peter Klein had already covered both in an earnings call three weeks ago.

Ditto with Reller's references to "the next generation of tablets," and comments about future smaller tablets; her message that PCs are changing, and tablets are only part of the computing continuum; and that users are more satisfied with Windows 8 using a mouse and keyboard than published reports indicate.

All of those comments and observations had been made before, in some cases by Reller herself.

With little new information disclosed today by Reller or by Microsoft as a whole, whether about Windows 8's near-future plans or about the sluggish response to the new OS, everyone remains in the dark, said Moorhead.

"This communication style produces a reaction about what you'd expect. OEMs are running as quickly as they can into the arms of Google," said Moorhead. "It just gives OEMs another reason to go back to Google and Chrome [OS] devices. I've seen roadmaps for major OEMs, and except for Dell, there are Android-based clamshell [notebooks] on them."

Enterprise customers, too, who require long lead times to make OS decisions, are increasingly frustrated at the lack of information, Moorhead said, citing sources of his own.

"The risk there is that Microsoft could lose traction on its core customers," Moorhead contended, talking of major corporations that fuel much of Microsoft's current revenue. "Two, three years down the road, that could result in [Server and] Tools revenue going down, and then after that, the Office franchise is at risk."

From Moorhead's perspective, Microsoft's decision to keep things close to its vest -- a strategy credited to the ousted head of Windows, Stephen Sinofsky -- has been a failure.

"They're not scoring points with anybody," Moorhead said. "It would be much better for the entire ecosystem if they went back to the persistent and open communication they were once known for, and let the chips fall where they may."

Also today, Julie Larson-Green, who heads Windows engineering, appeared at the Wired Business Conference, where she revealed one new piece of information: The preview of Blue will, as many expected, ship during BUILD, Microsoft's developers conference, slated for June 26-28. It will be available to all users of Windows 8.

Reller is scheduled to talk at the JP Morgan Technology, Media & Telecom Conference on May 14, a week from today.

This article, Microsoft's drip-drip-drip Windows communications strategy dubbed a washout, was originally published at Computerworld.com.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at  @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His email address is gkeizer@computerworld.com.

See more by Gregg Keizer on Computerworld.com.

From CIO: 8 Free Online Courses to Grow Your Tech Skills
Join the discussion
Be the first to comment on this article. Our Commenting Policies