About a year ago, I was helping a friend with some minor computer problems in his small business in Rio. He is a pretty smart guy, but his computer knowledge was lacking, and I wanted to help. As we sat down at the computer, we got the familiar XP error message that asked us whether we want to send the error details back to Microsoft. My neophyte friend hit “Do Not Send” immediately. When I asked why, he said “I don’t trust those bastards for anything and I would never send personal information over the internet to them.”
This anecdote sums up Microsoft’s primary business challenge. My friend is not an industry insider, nor is he a hacker or a Linux zealot. Just a guy that has learned over the years not to trust the largest software company in the world. That day, I came to the realization that Microsoft’s brand is horrible. In fact, as I pondered the question, I was hard pressed to think of another large company with a worse brand. General Motors, Rolex, Proctor and Gamble. Even Exxon had the Valdez oil spill, and Tylenol had the poisoning problem, and people still use and trust their products. But with Microsoft, people feel that they buy Microsoft products because they have to. Furthermore, people feel exploited, that Microsoft will continue to
leverage their monopoly to find new and innovative ways to extract money from people. Can you think of any other company that has such a negative brand?
Is this negative brand undeserved? I don’t think so. Perhaps one of the largest ‘scandals’ to hit Microsoft was during the introduction of XP. Both XP and their flagship Office product would have the ability to phone home to determine if the product was pirated. The public outcry was strong, but Microsoft was adamant, and today XP and Office XP still send information over the internet to Microsoft. Certainly, what they did was not illegal, but the impact to their brand, I believe, was strong. People were left with the impression that their privacy was secondary to Microsoft’s profits. Remember Bill Gates’ classic comment about Netscape in the mid 90’s that Microsoft had to cut off their air supply? Independent of what the judge ruled during anti-trust trials in 2000, the public got an inside look of a greedy monopolistic company. These memories and many many more are what
contribute to the company’s branding problem.
Which brings me to the point of this article. Given all of these problems, why would Microsoft recommend that users ignore Claria products in their Anti Spyware product? (Note: Claria, formerly Gator, sued PC Pitstop in September 2003) What’s worse is that rumors are swirling that Microsoft is contemplating purchasing Claria for $500M(broken link). I don’t know the reality of this situation, but the potential impact to their brand is certain. People are liable to think that Microsoft is chasing profits over the privacy of its users, and also the stability of their computers. Instead of immediately clarifying the situation, they defended their position. If I were Microsoft’s Vice President of Public Relations, I would resign right now. You might have a lot of stock options, but is it really worth your integrity?
But here’s what upsets me. Rather than doing the wrong thing, Microsoft should be doing the RIGHT thing related to spyware. I had high hopes that Microsoft was indeed changing when they purchased an anti spyware product and distributed it for free at the beginning of this year. Here’s what Microsoft does not understand, and a lot of the anti spyware companies for that matter. Customers and users are installing anti-spyware software because it helps them identify and remove software that they did not know was running on their computer. This is the voice that Microsoft should listen to – CUSTOMERS and USERS. Hello? If customers are unaware that a software is running on their computer, then the product should identify and
remove it. Period. You should delist or change the threat level of a software based on CUSTOMER feedback, not on business decisions.
I realize that Microsoft like any company is under tremendous pressure from Wall Street to increase profits and revenue growth. Given Microsoft’s power and size, it seems at times that they are chasing profits and the expense of their customers. This is killing their brand. The sad thing is that the spyware issue could have been a grand slam home run for Microsoft. They could have integrated their anti spyware product into the browser, and they could have killed the spyware industry and stabilized millions of computers. Additionally, Windows would become a much more reliable and stable platform without the constant menace of spyware. And Microsoft’s brand would turn from greedy, money grubbing monopolists to a knight in shining armor and guardian of the internet. I hope one day Microsoft will realize that even though the DOJ found them innocent of being monopolists, their customers still perceive them as such. And to stem that tide, they will have to choose customers over profits when given the opportunity. Now would be a good time to