Raising Expectations

If you’re following up with the US presidential election these days, you probably heard about Bill Clinton praising Sarah Palin and describing her as a candidate who can’t be underestimated. Even though Sarah Palin has been proven to be a political joke that is clearly not qualified to run anything not to mention a superpower. Add this to the Clinton’s (newly found) support for Obama, it’s easy to find yourself wondering what’s Bill doin’. The answer is simple, he’s raising expectations for Sarah Palin, making her look like someone who’s is very tough to beat so that when the fight is over and she won then Bill was right and if she lost then she’s letting everybody down.

Now, I hear your question from the minute you started reading. What does this has to do with anything that I ever wrote about? It’s simple really, Bill Clinton is a very skilled politician but Microsoft maybe not so much.

Couple of weeks ago, Microsoft started rolling out the “highly anticipated” ad campaign starring Jerry Seinfeld. Here are three facts about this campaign. First, People were waiting for months for Microsoft’s response to “Get a Mac” campaign by Apple. Second, All the buzz through August was about how Microsoft is spending 300 millions on a counter-attack ad campaign led by an agency that is known for its re-branding experience. And last, The negative reviews started 90 seconds after the first run of the first ad that didn’t deliver any kind of message.

Now, contrast Microsoft’s ads rollout strategy with what Bill Clinton did in the ABC interview and you’ll figure out one killer mistake that Microsoft is doing. Whenever I’m watching one of those ads, all I can think of is “300 millions for this”. Other people are even adding “crap” to my question. Even though we don’t know what the 300 millions are actually for (they could be for production, for distribution or both) But the important thing is that all we can think of is that Microsoft’s counter punch that costs more than a year and 300 million dollars is a not-so-funny joke between Gates and Seinfeld. It’s not the first time that Microsoft has done this mistake, remember the roll out of Vista, back when it was longhorn, people were very excited about Aero and the new Windows that just looks fantastic. And then there was the waiting, the features cutting to finish the waiting, and UAC messages. Over time people started getting used to how exciting Vista looks like and when it was time for it to be released it was like “So, what else is new”.

I can understand Microsoft’s reasons for involving the community in the development process by providing feedback and participating in testing. But let me revise those two reasons for a second. Feedback like suggesting features and tweaking existing features based on suggesting is an endless meaningless process. With all do respect to feedback, there’s a limit to people’s involvement in the process. Software design is simply not a democracy where anyone can be the designer and everyone can vote on design. If Microsoft don’t trust their own designers to build the right thing then maybe they should fire them and get other people who they can trust. Users involvement in Microsoft’s products via feedback is certainly not helping products being better and it’s not helping making users feel like they’re part of the process because at the end of the day they’re paying for those products, how can I help build something and then you’re charging me for it. As for testing, Microsoft can always test their products in a controlled environment by professional teams without having 5 million users testing it like they did with Vista.

Even if there are more reasons to involve the community in the development process, this still doesn’t justify letting products out in the open very early and giving away the excitement factor months before the final release and raising expectations for what the final release will look like.

You can say that Microsoft started avoiding this mistake with Windows 7 by setting a very strict secrecy policy (even with the leak of some screenshots) described as translucency Vs. transparency (credited to Steven Sinofsky who is the senior VP for windows) which is widely criticized by critics and Microsoft news bloggers that with no news coming out of Redmond will probably have nothing to blog about.

To sum up. Microsoft, stop building expectations for your products and find a balance between how to share info with the media, partners, and community and how to roll out the excitement very near to the shipping date.