The Feds are busting Microsoft for having the bad manners to serve customers better than anybody else.

By Doc Searls
October 21, 1997
(Originally written for DaveNet. That version is here.)

What we need is restraint in characterization.

Granted, Microsoft has brutal competitive manners. In Bill's own words, they can be "hard core." In other words, heartless. But in more fundamental ways, Microsoft has more heart than any other company in the business. And that, far more than their competitive aggressiveness, accounts for their constant success.

In The New Character of Positioning, I characterize Microsoft as "The Servant," because they serve customers better than anybody else. Building IE into Windows, if they do it right, will make the Internet easier to access and use, for millions of people. I see no moral difference between Microsoft building IE into Windows and Nordstrom selling espresso drinks in the same mall as Starbuck's. Why not? What favors does Nordstrom owe to Starbucks?

To compete effectively, Netscape needs to do what they've done repeatedly in the past: not only build a better browser, but do it in a way that defines the whole category. (See the "Bulldozer" interviews.) I hope they do, although my faith is limited by my encounters with Netscape tech support, which seems to regard paying browser customers (of which I am one) as an annoyance. I have no sense that there is any connection between Netscape customer service and engineering. As long as engineering continues to innovate in radically compelling ways, this may not be a problem. But at some point they will need to iterate in customer-sensitive ways, and then they'll be lost. Just like Apple, whose won lack of customer caring is masked by constant carping about Microsoft's competitive nastniess.

In fact, Apple has always been contemptuous of customer feedback. They were The Great Innovators. They had the most originality. The best engineering. They knew what was best for customers. Nobody needed to tell them. Customers least of all.

So, while Microsoft gives away its browser, Apple discontinues free customer support. As of last Monday, 1-800-SOS-APPL went dead. Call that number and you'll meet a sadistic robot with Alzheimer's who will lead you through a maze that ultimately terminates in a choice between two infuriating destinations: 1) recorded "help" with "making purchase decisions"; and 2) a recording that says, "All of our support representatives are currently assisting other customers at this time. If you would like to hear this message again, please hold." If you hold, it repeats the message, then cuts off the connection. Fun, huh?

That last message is worse than bad manners. It's a lie that deserves indictment for fraud. In fact, a recent Apple press release disclosed the company's decision to completely turn off free customer support. And that's exactly what's going on here.

In my case, after wandering through voice mail mazes and promotional BS on the Apple Web site, I found a customer support number on which a human being — clearly hating what has happened to his job — offers options to pay $35 for a "single incident" or $70 for Apple Care. Per computer. In my case that $70 cost them one of their most loyal customers. I've had more Macs than I can count, going back to one of the first 128s off the line in 1984. But this was the last straw. No mas. Bad trade, Steve.

Now I see Jesse Berst and others are talking about how Microsoft's mooshing IE and Windows together will fail in the "court of public opinion." This is BS, too. The public will have no problem with it. Nor will Jesse.

Markets are conversations. All Microsoft products with version numbers upwards of 2 are the visible halves of a vast conversation between Microsoft and its users. The size of that conversation grows for a very good reason: Marketing 101: talk to customers, find out what they want, give it to them, and repeat. Marketing 102 is about doing the same with the rest of the conversation's participants, which in the case of the platform business includes other developers. This is at the heart of what Microsoft does, and it is a fact that most of Microsoft's competitors (and the press that covers the business as if it were some kind of sports event) ignore, mostly because they credit as wisdom the grace of success with brilliant products for which little conversation is required — and the abundance of those kinds of successes. Such as all those "insanely great" Apple products that died because Apple never made the transition from rolling out great products to improving them based on good input from customers and developers.

What too few companies in the computing business understand is that successful adaptation over long periods of time requires constant and caring conversation with customers, users and developers. Until its competitors put that principle to practice, Microsoft will continue to build its monopoly the old-fashioned way — by earning it.

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