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Letter to Ballmer: Making Better Consumer Devices

Last year, I wrote Steve Ballmer an email, and he was kind enough to write me back.  The email contained a scan of a column I wrote praising Microsoft’s BI strategy.  His reply contained three simple words: “Super nice  thanks.” Well, now I’d like to write to Steve again, in an open letter format, and this time the love may be a bit tougher.  But I’m still super earnest.

The past two days have been eventful ones for Microsoft: The company announced the departure of company veterans Robbie Bach and J Allard and the market announced Apple is now besting Microsoft in market capitalization. Plus, announcements were made that make it plain that Ballmer will, in effect, be running Microsoft’s Entertainment & Devices division himself. With that in mind, I’d like to offer my list of a dozen things I think Microsoft’s CEO should do to improve that division’s offerings and, hopefully, its bottom line.

So here goes:

 

1. On Windows Phone 7, Stay the Course

The press is teeming with headlines and reader comments proclaiming the death-before-arrival of Windows Phone 7.  That’s plain silly.  You’ve got the makings of a great and unique SmartPhone platform, and you’re the only company (even considering RIM) that can offer full fidelity Exchange integration, not to mention implementing Office on the device.  Let the existing team finish this puppy and ship it. And then have them pump out a few updates, over-the-air, quickly.  Show them that Google Android’s not the only product that can do good, rapid dot releases.

And another thing: make sure your OEMs’ devices have flawless touch screens.  If they don’t, then you shouldn’t certify them for delivery to customers.  Period.

Oh, and kill the Kin, quietly.  It was DOA, and you know it.

 

2. Move Media Center to the Xbox Platform

Media Center is, at its core, a good product.  But delivering a media distribution and DVR platform on a sophisticated PC operating system like Windows 7 just creates too many moving parts.  Xbox already functions as the best Media Center extender device – it should actually be the hub as well. Media Center is mostly based on .NET code – and XNA is a .NET environment for Xbox – find a way to bridge that small gap and make Media Center a joy to work with instead of a frustration.  Beating Apple TV out of this sub-market is the lowest hanging fruit on the tree (goofy pun, but it’s true).

 

3. Integrate Media Center with Mediaroom, or Kill the Latter

You have two media products with almost identical names.  One is for standalone DVRs and the other is for IPTV cable set tops with DVR capabilities.  Can we merge these please?  My previous request of putting Media Center on Xbox would seem to tie into this nicely, since you’ve announced plans to do that with Mediaroom already.

 

4. Fix the Red Ring of Death

People love the Xbox, but they really don’t love sending their consoles back every 18-24 months, when they get a bunch of red lights flashing on power up.  You’ve handled this defect about as gracefully as possible, but it’s been around for a long time now and it doesn’t seem to be fixed yet.  You can do better.  In fact, you must do better, or you insult your customers.

 

5. Add Blu Ray to Xbox

I know, streaming movies are the future; physical media is legacy technology.  So if that’s true, why did you back HD DVD so hard?  You know why: for now, the film studios won’t allow a large selection of new release, HD, surround sound content be distributed on any medium other than Blu Ray or cable pay per view/on-demand.  Don’t you want home theater buffs to see the Xbox as a fantastic device for their rigs?  Don’t you want to put PlayStation 3 out of its misery?  And if you follow my suggestions above (move Media Center to the Xbox and fix the Red Ring problem), you’d have it all sewn up.  Do I think Blu Ray functionality will move a lot of units?  No.  Do I think that it would move more units with desperately needed influential home theater consumers?  You bet.  And you might sell more ZunePass subscriptions in the process.

But while you’re at it, make the fan quieter, please.

 

6. Make More of Windows Home Server

Home Server is a fantastic product.  And for reasons unknown to me, it seems like you’re letting it languish.  Development of the add-in ecosystem seems underfunded.  WHS’ unparalleled ease of use and reliability for home PC backup (and emergency restores) goes unsung.  Product cycles are slow.  Support for your OEMs, who are doing great work, especially in the green space with Atom CPUs, seems lacking.  You’ve married a trophy girl and you keep her cloistered at home!  That’s cruel, unusual and, um, incredibly ill-advised. 

Make use of this ace card, and while you’re at it, give it real integration with Media Center.  The integration thus far proof-of-concept quality.  You should go way past that – both products will benefit immeasurably.

 

7. Set Up a Partner Platform for Custom Installers

There’s a whole sub-industry of companies that install, integrate and configure home theater, security and connected home products.  They have an industry group. They are influential in the high-end of the consumer electronics industry, and so are their customers.  They love Media Center and they love Windows Home Server.  But I have talked to several of them at the Consumer Electronics Show and they tell me you don’t love them.  They find it very difficult to do business with Microsoft, even though they want nothing more than to sell and evangelize your platform.  This is a travesty.  Please fix it.  Get Allison Watson and the Microsoft Partner Network on board and have her hire someone who knows how to run a channel program for consumer electronics companies.  Problem solved.  Markets expanded.

 

8. Make Your Own Hardware

In other areas, I know you love your partners.  I help run one, so I appreciate that.  But when it came to Xbox and Zune you built them it yourself (albeit on a contract basis, which is fine).  Windows Phone 7 has a chance to work as an OEM play, but it would work better if you produced the devices.  At least consider building a reference device that sells alongside your OEMs’ offerings.  That’s what Google did with the Nexxus One.  And while that phone was not itself a big seller, it catalyzed two wonderful things : (1) a quality bar was set and (2) partners exceeded itBefore the Nexxus One, the best Android handset out there was the Motorola Droid. The Nexxus One was better, and the HTC Droid Incredible and Evo 4G are now even better than Google’s phone, which is why Verizon and Sprint decided not to carry it.  Imagine if all Windows Phone 6.x devices were on par with the HTC HD2.  I tend to believe you’d have a lot bigger market share than you do now.

 

9. Continue with Your Retail Initiative

From what I hear, it sounds like it’s going well.  And this goes right along with making your own hardware.  When you build it, they will come.  And then it makes the likes of Best Buy and Staples do better.

 

10. Make an Acquisition (or Two)

TiVo and/or Moxi look ripe for the picking.  With their ability to build stuff people love and your ability to run a business, you might just have something.  But do a better job than you did when you bought Danger.  Buy the ideas, not just the customers, eh?

 

11. Make Beautiful Stuff

You’ve heard this one before, I know.  But I have some head-shrinking advice on this one.  You know that Apple obsesses over its industrial design.  You know that appeals to consumers.  But it seems you think doing so is Apple’s game exclusively and so you shouldn’t even try.  Bull dinky.  Come to New York and visit the Museum of Modern Art’s Architecture and Design gallery.  You’ll see that lots of companies and product categories have had very high design value well before Apple existed.  You can do this, and the Zune HD was a great start.  Now run with that.  Find those negative voices in your head that are telling you that you can’t and shut them up.  For good.

 

12. Burst the Bubble

Some of the products you’ve built seem like they were conceived in a bizarro world.  That would appear to be the result of groupthink.  You must do better.  And there’s lots of people willing to advise you.  This includes just about everyone in the Regional Director program, and probably a bunch of MVPs.  Heck, I bet the guys at Engadget could help out too.  Imagine if you let them see the Kin before it shipped.  Talk to high-end gear consumers.  Talk to Best Buy and CostCo customers too.

 

Signing Off

I hope this was of value to you.  As I wrote this I kept telling myself how obvious, even trite, some of these pieces of advice were and then, because of that, doubting they’d really help.  But I decided that they must not be obvious to Microsoft.  Sometimes when you get wrapped up in stuff, it’s hard to clear your head.  I think my head’s pretty clear here though (I’m wrapped up in other stuff), so maybe my perspective can help.  If not, well, then, I guess they all can’t be super nice.



Feedback

# re: Letter to Ballmer: Making Better Consumer Devices

Couldn't agree more on your blog.

One more thing I would like to add for number 6 is to make the Windows Home Server available in more countries. I am living in Hong Kong and I found that there is no way to buy a unit over here and turn out that I bought a Synology unit.

Ivan 5/27/2010 2:30 AM | Ivan Fong

# re: Letter to Ballmer: Making Better Consumer Devices

The only other thing I can think of....Zune in Media Center. Why cant my played items in WMC show up in my Zune list? Why cant I buy music/videos/etc on the fly from my WMC interface. This has got to be an initiative. Where is it at? 5/27/2010 10:08 AM | Tyler

# re: Letter to Ballmer: Making Better Consumer Devices

1 - Staying the Course
The only thing silly here is your assumption that Windows Phone 7 will be great or unique. The future is largely a function of the past, and it'd be safer to bet against Windows Phone 7 than on it (but I'll be the first to admit certainly not a sure thing!). But lets not get sucked into a debate of opinion, but rather focus on the two main advantages you think Windows Phone 7 holds - Office and Exchange.

Don't you find it ironic that your first solution to building more consumer-friendly products is to leverage the most enterprise focused tools you could possibly come up with: exchange and office. What next? Better sharepoint integration!? *YOU* might want exchange integration because *YOU* live in outlook (as a lot of tech and business people do), but most consumers I know live in facebook and gmail. The same holds true for Office.

You are completely mixing up your needs with consumer needs - because you think you are a typical consumer. Trust me, if "exchange integration" is the first thing that comes to your mind, then you are not!

Xbox/Media Center stuff
Xbox is a console, breaking it out of that category will be hard. TV is a hard nut to crack, MS and others have failed for a long time. I have no clue what will or won't work - and I doubt anyone else knows either.

6. Make More of Windows Home Server
Again, you don't get consumers. They don't want another machine - another layer of complexity, something else to manage, something else to draw power, be always on and break. You think having more computers is cool, consumers think having more than 1 computer is something for geeks and losers. Home Server, while useful, and decently implemented, will never be cool and will never be a consumer product.

8. Make Your Own Hardware
Good idea, but difficult to execute - building your own hardware isn't like turning on a switch. Microsoft's doesn't have a great track record - they don't have the hardware process, people, or technology that a company like Apple has.

10. Make an Acquisition (or Two)
Like Danger? TiVo is the past.

11. Make Beautiful Stuff
Again, you over simplify things you don't understand. Design is hard, it involves manufacturing capabilities, expertise and even patents. You can't just flip a switch, or visit a museum, and make it happen. Its especially hard when your competitor is largely what defines good design. It doesn't even matter if MS can do it, they just aren't trend setting.

12. Burst the Bubble
The craziest of all your ideas...the solution for MS to be more consumer focused is to listen to yes-men who are geeks and actually think better exchange integration will be a deciding factor. Your idea of avoid "groupthink" is to listen to RDs and MVPs - because we all knows RDs and MVPs are an ideal focus group to represent the average consumer. 5/27/2010 10:26 AM | Karl

# re: Letter to Ballmer: Making Better Consumer Devices

12 excellent pieces of advice. Before yesterday I would have added two more, mainly on the management side.

1) Get rid of Bach and put J Allard in his place. Allard is a creative visionary genius. He is also a natural leader, if you take his farewell letter's premise on fostering creativity and talent into account. It's no wonder that he's going to be "advising" Ballmer from now on...as Seattle PI wrote, you wouldn't want him landing in Google or Apple. Ballmer needed to keep him on the payroll, somehow.

As an aside, the Courier was hands down one of the most innovative concepts in the tablet/mobile space. I know it was all CG and just a concept, but that is the kind of concept/invention that should not be squashed. It is management's responsibility to make sure when a concept like that emerges, something so far ahead of it's time and *WAY* ahead of the competition, that it becomes reality. Hopefully, and I'm stretching here, J Allard has a few items up his sleeve, being that Gates already mentioned that multiple tablets are in the works and J Allard mentioned that he'll be working on some products in the fall.

2) Ballmer is a great advocate and evangelist for Microsoft, but he's not the right person when it comes to running the company. I think that Ozzie would be perfect because he would bring that small company, small team, extreme focus mentality to the company, allowing them to be more agile in the marketplace, and more creative as teams and individuals. 5/27/2010 8:03 PM | amk

# re: Letter to Ballmer: Making Better Consumer Devices

Excellent suggestions. One that I would add is that on the consumer side you need to advertise much more than you have in the past. And do not go with whoever came up with the Gates/Seinfeld ads. It seems like I can't go an hour or two of watching TV without seeing an iPhone or iPad commercial. BTW the Windows 7 commercials are a really great start. Just don't let up. You need to advertise the hell out of Windows Phone 7. P.S. The ZuneHD is an incredible device - truly great user eXperience. Too bad Microsoft didn't put more into advertising it. 5/27/2010 11:46 PM | Keith Hill

# re: Letter to Ballmer: Making Better Consumer Devices

Sorry, Andrew, you're a smart guy and knowledgeable in your profession, but I think you've overstepped a bit here. Half of this sounds like a personal wishlist, and the other half sounds like what you thought it sounds like.

Mr. Ballmer is a smart guy, too, and is well positioned to see a ton of stuff that neither of us can. I would be reluctant to assume he's in need of such advice.

My hope is that MS doesn't get an identity crisis & try to become more like Apple. Microsoft has plenty of strengths enough that Apple doesn't, and hopefully they won't lose sight of those and rather build on them. We don't need more Apple clones or wannabes.

5/28/2010 11:39 PM | Ambrose

# re: Letter to Ballmer: Making Better Consumer Devices

Truely move part of Media Center and the Zune to the cloud. Why can't I configure my podcast list on the Zune and have that list shared with MCE? Let me set preferences as to which device a podcast is downloaded on? When I buy a new device, 1-2-3, I have all my subscriptions. RSS is the future of distribution. Don't make it so difficult for me to move what I watch and listen to. 5/29/2010 9:44 AM | Andrew Robinson

# re: Letter to Ballmer: Making Better Consumer Devices

Item 6: Windows Home Server (WHS)

I agree with Karl here. It's not a consumer device. It's a low volume product for old school PC folks.

To be successful, I believe WHS needs to be a full blown cloud service that requiring zero on-site hardware. In this case, Microsoft would make a good profit from WHS subscripion fees but needs a good low cost/high volume pricing model.

We live in a new world of Mobile Cloud Devices. Solutions requiring new desktop PC hardware does not fit in this new world.
5/31/2010 1:10 PM | Gary Russo

# re: Letter to Ballmer: Making Better Consumer Devices

@AMK

6. WHS is a perfect solution for home users with itunes integration, and creating a centralized media store effectively is a greener solution. The issue is the media extenders as the Xbox though the best extender available is not a good solution. They should create an extender only solution based on the xbox platform. 8/14/2010 1:50 AM | Eric

# re: Letter to Ballmer: Making Better Consumer Devices

Microsoft Courier devices shows along with its Research and developement that its a well inovative company. I am glad that they decicded to "reset" the company and become more open to developers. On that note Microsoft can greate a new market with the Courier ( booklet)(http://gizmodo.com/5365299/courier-first-details-of-microsofts-secret-tablet)how it works here...http://www.bing.com/videos/watch/video/microsoft-courier-how-microsoft-thinks-youll-use-it/cb22a0abf4939ff6762ecb22a0abf4939ff6762e-416360301996?q=microsoft+courier+&FORM=VIRE8 device ...While at the same time keep continue in its effort to deliver its slate platform. I beg of you to keep talking to them. They also need to understand that in resetting they should also consider the time line they take to release items. 1/1/2011 12:29 PM | Chad

# re: Letter to Ballmer: Making Better Consumer Devices

If microsoft or Steve Ballmer reads this letter your wrote and do as you say. Microsoft products would get more and more market share in future. 2/18/2011 2:56 AM | Diz Ağrısı