Posted by: kurtsh | June 20, 2006

COMMENTARY: Microsoft’s ACTUAL Top 10 “flops”

Recently, a link-pandering hack decided to accent Bill Gates’ announcement to transition to a part-time role at Microsoft by listing on the web what she opines are Microsoft’s worst products, beating on old horses like Microsoft Bob & Windows ME. 
 
Y’know, as strange as this sounds, I actually don’t consider Microsoft Bob to be a "catastrophic flop".  I would define a major flop as being a balance of significant resource investment, substantial marketing hype, and negative impact upon customers.  The larger the hype or the larger the investment or the more poor the impact, the more significant the flop.  Bob was in all cases, relatively harmless:  It wasn’t very costly relative to other work going on at the time like NT 4.0, it didn’t receive a tremendous amount of marketing unlike Win95, and it really didn’t impact users much – it was a UI substitute for $39.95.  It’s simply one of the more visible and memorable mistakes we’ve had so people kick it.  (Did you know it still works fine on WinXP systems?) 
 
The aforementioned hack’s list was a good demonstration of her actual ignorance of Microsoft’s history.  In an effort to show just how far off she was, here’s a list of products that I instead would categorize as being Microsoft’s Top 10 Greatest Flops. 
Microsoft’s Top 10 Flops
 
Vizact 2000
Microsoft Vizact?  Never heard of it?  It was a fully launched Office 2000 product that shared billing along side the rest of the Y2K product, just like Microsoft’s well-built but ill-fated PhotoDraw 2000. Vizact was a tool that "animated" documents and made them "interactive" by rendering the entire document in HTML and making sections collapsible using crosshairs, and making areas multidimensional to allow greater informational depth without scrolling down the page.  the only problem was that no one ever asked for this in static Office documents:  Having this in web documents was just fine for most, but within static docs lile .XLSs?  Oh no.  Vizact lasted no more than 6-9 months before disappearing.  Today some of it’s seeds still reside within the HTML creation engine of Word.
…Office level hype & marketing, absolutely no consumer uptake… that’s what I call a flop.
Windows QoS
Windows Quality of Service (QoS) was technology between desktop & server to provide the world with the first managed end-point-to-router-to-end-point bandwidth controls that were isolated to individual user accounts and subnets.  IT could ensure that "Bill Gates and his Comdex demonstration" would get 90% of the available bandwidth on a given pipe while "Joe User who was on the same pipe, reading Hotmail" would get only 10%, as a policy.  But because Microsoft ran into the brick wall known as Cisco, who isn’t fond of sharing control over their territory any more than MS is of sharing theirs, nothing ever came of the server & client technology that was to make this possible.  It’s all still there though:  Waiting for someone to use it someday. …to date, I’ve never once met an organization that used it since it’s inception in 2000 and it’s constantly maintained in the OS, and that’s what I call a flop.
 
Microsoft Reader
Microsoft Reader was a VERY good framework for building eBooks & documents that a) were strongly digital rights protected, b) were not copy-and-pastable/printable, c) portable to multiple devices in a managed way, d) easily creatable using free or low-cost software like Microsoft Word, & e) very readable on LCD screens for a book-like experience, with bookmarks, highlighting, and inline user comments.  In a phrase, it was superior in every respect to Adobe Acrobat eBooks.  This however was a case of very bad product marketing & planning.  Instead of actively marketing interesting & relevant books to lure in potential influential end users, (like the Da Vinci Code, Microsoft Reference books, Zagat Guide, Double Digit Growth, etc.) the folks responsible for Reader chose to exclusively focus their efforts on eBook vendors like Amazon.com & Barnes & Noble, hoping that these folks would make the eBook revolution successful basically out of the goodness of their own hearts.  Needless to say, even with the availability of tools that enabled any Word document to be turned into a Reader eBook, it failed and today, Reader still exists and lives on as a great eBook platform but nonetheless, an fairly unused one.
…when you fail when you’ve got the world’s two largest book vendors behind you, you’ve got yourself a flop.
 
Mobile Information Server
Mobile Information Server 2001 was the brainchild of Mobility VP Juha Christensen, a Nokia executive that came onboard Microsoft and implemented a cellular Mobility strategy that was, at best, myopic.  MIS2001  provided WML-based mobile browser compatible web pages for WAP connections (particularly Exchange information) to cell phones with Phone.com’s browser.  (99% text content)  This might have been interesting in Europe where Juha was from, but in the US, almost no one uses WAP/WML.  MIS was eventually dismantled, its components fused into Exchange Server as a value add that we today call the "Exchange front end server", and the Exchange group has taken over it’s development.
…the mere fact that there are 50 Million cell phone users out there an virtually none of their corporate companies bought MIS spells "FLOP".
 
Rare/Grabbed by the Ghoulies/Kameo/Perfect Dark Zero
This one hurts because I love these guys but…  Rare, a game development studio acquisition, was a serious flop for Microsoft.  Producing games such as XBoxClassic "Grabbed by the Ghoulies", Xbox360 "Perfect Dark Zero", & Xbox360 "Kameo", Rare has done little to date to warrant the acquisition costs paid for them.  The lone bright spot in the acquistion was "Conker:  Live & Reloaded", a moderately heralded rated-R console game for XBoxClassic.  It looked good and had great game play but was rather light on the revenue otherwise.
…when you can’t bring in enough revenue to pay for your own acquisition, that’s a flop. 
 
Taxsaver
Microsoft Taxsaver was Microsoft’s answer to Intuit’s TurboTax.  It was a VERY nice piece of software that in most every respect, was superior to TurboTax at the time it was created but it has one seriously horrendous flaw:  It lacked state tax filing.  Yep – it was exclusively Federal tax only.  Why we couldn’t get this done or felt it was "optional", we’ll never know.  Suffice it to say that the product flopped but was sold to H&R Block who has since then added State Income Tax filing and is the #2 player in this market.  Meanwhile, the aforementioned hack journalist mentioned Microsoft Money as being a flop instead of Taxsaver:  Why would anyone mention Microsoft Money – a profitable & successful, highly acclaimed, and fairly beloved product amongst its users, when she could have mentioned Taxsaver?
…anyone that thinks the creation of a Federal only tax product is knowingly creating a flop.
 
Systems Management Server 2.0
As any truly experienced IT professional will tell you, the flagship management product from Microsoft’s Management group from back in 1998 was so buggy, non-functional, and poorly written – even through it’s Service Pack 2, the division almost never recovered.  Fortunately for us, it did get stabilized after the hiring of Kirill Tatarinov, former CEO of BMC Software, was brought in to lead the division and create a vision for Microsoft Enterprise Management.  SMS 2003’s stability, strong ties to the Dynamic Systems Initiative, and the introduction of OS Deployment, Device Management, and other functional SMS additions are a testament to the intellect and drive of Kirill… one of the reason’s his name is held in such reverence amongst Management specialists.
…I hope I don’t have to explain why a 5 year old product that people were still trying to stablize at its end-of-life, is considered a flop. 
 
Mac Internet Explorer 1.0
Besides being relatively featureless next to Netscape for Mac, Mac IE 1.0 had a moving Windows logo on it.  Have you ever met a Mac user that wanted a "moving Windows logo" on their desktop?  Nuff said.  The logo was later removed and the new IE 4.0 "e" logo was used instead, but not before people condemned the product thoroughly.  The product had to consistently improve over 4 versions before it overcame the stigma of 1.0.
…the silliness of releasing a big name hyped sister product on a Mac, with a Windows logo on it, in tandem with all the effort put into the product, garners it the designation of a ‘flop’. 
 
Internet Explorer 4.0
In an attempt to leap frog the competition, Microsoft produced Internet Explorer 4.0, a technologically superior product to Netscape Navigator in every feature and in every capability.  Unfortunately, it was by my own personal experience, unstable a whopping 5% of the time and resulted in frequent crashes, slowdowns, and freezes… probably one out of every 10-20 times you ran it.  Memory leaks galore.  Microsoft gathered together 50+ sponsors from various major names on the Internet stating they supported IE 4.0 causing the great Browser Wars that we all remember from that era but it was only until IE 5.0 did we have a faster, more stable browser.
…the huge amount of money, hype, and the ultimate bad impact it had on users was what had me judge 4.0 as a ‘flop’.
 
Windows NT 4.0 Option Pack
Anyone with IT administrative experience will read this and shout, "Oh YEAH.  He’s right."  The Option Pack was a poorly tested, poorly implemented "feature pack" for Windows NT Server 4.0 that included Transaction Server, IIS 4.0, and a number of other technologies.  When installed, it was virtually uninstallable and it had the uncanny propensity to ruin installations of Windows NT.  What made it nefarious was that many admins and app developers really needed the components within the Option Pack, making it very popular to install – causing much diress amongst its users.  The Option Pack was the reason we rarely ship features into Service Packs and instead provide web releases of new functionality.
…I still have a copy of this.  It’s such a flop, I’m thinking of eBaying the sucker for posterity.
 

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