The double-edged sword of feedback has drawn some blood from Microsoft's Windows 10 and nicked the company's promise to listen to users.
Since Microsoft changed how OneDrive synchronizes files in the latest preview of Windows 10, testers have been trying to convince the Redmond, Wash.-based company to backtrack and restore what they perceive as the cloud-based storage service's best feature.
In Windows 8.1, OneDrive does not automatically place actual copies of all cloud-stored files on a device's local storage, but instead shows placeholders, also called "smart files," for those still stored online. When clicked, a smart file kicks off a download to the device.
Smart files allowed users to view the entire contents of OneDrive from File Explorer, browse or search for files, and then download only those they needed at that moment. After the change in Windows 10, users could not do that, and were forced to download all or part of their OneDrive library to each device they wanted to keep in sync.
While the tenor of testers' comments on a long thread from Microsoft's Windows suggestion box was overwhelmingly in favor of restoring OneDrive's previous functionality, another theme through the discussion was of disappointment, even betrayal.
"If customer feedback is to matter, Microsoft needs to act on it," said a tester identified as tlee. "Like it did not do with Windows 8 (and note what happened there)."
"Microsoft, why have the Feedback app if you don't want to listen to your customers in the first place?" asked one of several anonymous posters.
"You said 'and we got clear feedback that some customers were confused,'" about placeholders, said a tester identified as korg250, referring to Microsoft's response to criticism last week. "There are over 6,200 votes here saying otherwise. What's 'some' for you and where did that come from? You opened ... a website dedicated to customers' feedback and, although there's not a single complaint here about that, you decided to take another route."
Those users, and many others, contrasted Microsoft's pledge to listen to users as it crafted Windows 10 with what one characterized as a "tone deaf" company response. That response acknowledged the negative feedback, but reaffirmed that OneDrive placeholders would not be used in Windows 10.
In September, Terry Myerson, the company's top operating systems executive, said, "We're inviting our most enthusiastic Windows customers to shape Windows 10 with us." The company also kicked off the Windows Insiders Program, which had feedback as one of its central tenets.
"Pretty stupid to tell the thousands of users who provide solid feedback that you're canning a favorite feature due to feedback. Makes zero sense," said Freddy Gains in another message on the "bring back placeholders" thread.
Others dredged up Windows 8 as an example of what happens when Microsoft does not pay attention to customer feedback.
"Please learn from the Windows 8 experience that you should listen to your users," advised smonky. "Don't do a Sinofsky and placate us with PR drivel. Bring back this feature."
Smonky was referring to Steven Sinofsky, the executive who led Windows 8 development. Sinofsky, who was ousted from the company shortly after the operating system's October 2012 launch, had been denounced by both customers and analysts for not listening to critics who, long before Windows 8's release, panned its two-in-one user interface and blasted the decision to dump the venerable Start menu.
Feedback can cut both ways, argued Wes Miller, an analyst with Directions on Microsoft. Users are happy when they get to suggest changes, but angry when they're not heeded, a problem that can put a developer in a no-win situation.
"If you ask for feedback, you're going to get it," said Miller in a recent interview. "You'll get 'Yeah, you're doing this right' or 'What were you people thinking?' But feedback is a double-edged sword. You have to be careful to balance feedback with what you want or need to do with a product."
User feedback, in other words, cannot be the only driver of a product's direction.
In this case, that's not only because of the usual conflicting messages received from users and the sheer number of opinions, but also because of the composition of the group providing Windows 10 feedback.
"If you ask highly technical people for their opinions, you'll get answers that only highly technical people want. These are not necessarily the best voices to listen to," Miller said, referring to the Insider Program's composition and the fact that average users are likely very much under-represented.
Miller, who worked at Microsoft during the development of Windows XP, acknowledged that "feedback is a cacophony, and sometimes not useful."
The "you're ignoring our feedback" issue isn't new to Microsoft, or any large software developer that solicits customer opinions.
"This has been the usual problem for years," said Miller, citing changes such as cleaning up the task bar in Windows XP and adding the oft-lambasted "ribbon" to Office 2007. "Microsoft tries to simplify things, but those changes often don't work for highly vocal users."
Even so, Miller was in the Windows 10 testers' camp: He was puzzled by the OneDrive change and wanted the original functionality restored. "I'm kind of perplexed by their move. I'm not sure what their thinking was," he said. "But they need to come up with a solution that also makes sense for Windows tablets."
Scores of users who commented on the "restore OneDrive" thread had pointed out that, with unlimited OneDrive storage space, they were unable to synchronize more than a fraction of what was in the cloud to their tablets or Surface Pro devices, which sport as little as 64GB of on-device space.
Miller doubted Microsoft would shift into the drastic reverse that testers demanded. "Making a knee-jerk reaction would be stupid for Microsoft," he said -- but he questioned claims by others that the OneDrive change was on the same level as Microsoft's missteps with Windows 8.
"I wouldn't make this analogous to Windows 8. With issues like the Start screen, Microsoft wasn't willing to have any feedback," Miller asserted. "Now, there's an ongoing dialogue about what they do. And there's going to be some who are displeased no matter what they finally end up with."
That would be those who have predicted woe and doom if their demands were not met.
"With all the feedback this issue received, if Microsoft doesn't do anything about it to satisfy the need of the people, then the whole idea of the Windows Insiders programme and the notion that they take into consideration our feedback will have officially failed," said Kyriakos Ktorides in the thread.
"If they kill the placeholders after all of this, then they will only be showing us their true colors, what those of us who've been around the block awhile already knew about them: that this whole feedback tool was just a joke PR campaign," contended a commenter identified as Don. "Waiting to watch the failure that will be Windows 10."
As of midday Friday, the thread where korg250 and others left comments contained 481 messages and had accumulated more than 7,100 votes for a return of OneDrive placeholders.