Windows Vista Consumer Confusion Edition

Microsoft has finally released the official product lineup for Windows Vista.  They are going from a two SKU model in XP (with later additions of Tablet, Media Center & Starter Editions), to a whopping 6 + N SKU’s for Vista.  This is bad for several reasons.

Brand Expectations:  One of the core strengths of the Microsoft OS is that people know what to expect.  By selling all of these different versions, you are confusing your brand image.  Many of the more advanced features are available only on the higher SKU’s.  If someone asks how to do something related to one of these higher-end tasks (like file encryption), we must first deduce what edition they are running (Here’s where the consumer says “I don’t know, it’s Windows!  I got Vista, you told me to get Vista!”). People (non-geeks) already feel that they have to learn too much to utilize computers, now you’re asking them to learn more in order to buy computers.

People Will Buy on Price:  Many businesses and consumers will buy whatever is cheapest.  This is bad for many reasons.  First, it’s less revenue for Microsoft.  Second, after these people buy the cheaper SKU, they will often be less satisfied as customers.  I’ve always hated the XP Home SKU, since so many small businesses have purchased it (usually on cheap prebuilt machines) only to find out that it didn’t give them all of the functionality they needed.

How could Microsoft have done this better?

Option 1:  Two SKU’s, Vista Home & Vista Business.  This gives folks a clear message about who each version is intended for.  Beyond that, if you must have exclusive features, sell cheap feature packs.  Instead of having a separate CD or download required for these feature packs, put them all on the original disc, and let the consumer purchase activations quickly and easily over the phone or internet.  Heck, you could even offer freebies (like “Try the media center feature pack for four weeks free starting July 4th, no credit card required!”).  This makes it a social experiment where everyone can try out the cool features, and decide if it’s worth a subscription or one-time fee.

Option 2:  Come up with a different brand for the Home and Business lines.  The home SKU’s could be Vista, the business ones could be some other two-syllable word that embodies productivity, efficiency, collaboration, or whatever other feel-good buzzwords you need to cling to.

I guess it’s too late, the ship has already sailed on this one…

The Nuclear Option for Network Neutrality: Eminent Domain

I’m reading stories all over the blogosphere and technology news about how the big network players are trying to leverage their control of the internet and do away with network neutrality.  Daniel Berninger asserts that this development will destroy the internet as we know itMany others are chiming in.

While I’m sure many are sensationalizing this, I’d like to put forward an option.

Throughout the history of this country, the government has had no qualms about using its power of eminent domain to build infrastructure that will serve the common good.  That’s why we are able to have highways, decent roads, schools, public buildings, and many other institutions fairly well spread out through the country.

The argument goes like this:  The internet is infrastructure that serves the public good.  It enables commerce, communication, government operations, pretty much anything that requires communication can leverage the internet to make services more accessible and interoperable.  If the actions of the owners of the network are beginning to threaten the public good, then the government has a responsibility to step in.  This is even more relevant because the government has subsidized many major improvements to the buildout of the internet.

Now I’m not sure that I’d want the government taking over the internet.  I could see it falling in the lap of the FCC, and I just can’t imagine that would serve the common good (No offense intended to the fine folks at the FCC).  But the recent Supreme Court decision on eminent domain makes that a mute point.  We just need a couple of private development corporations to propose to some local or state governments that they could better serve the public good than the current owners of those assets.  The government, even at the local or state level could step in and condemn and transfer the assets to a new, more responsible steward.

Now, like other nuclear options, this one might server better as a threat than through actual implementation.  If a few heavyweight locals (NYC, LA, etc.) let the networks know this option was on the table, I’d be willing to bet that it would never have to be implemented.  The downside to this option being on the table is that it might discourage investment in new infrastructure, but I think that it would be better than letting the network degrade into a disjointed, fractured, and much less useful internet.

Update 6/19/2006: Mike at TechDirt links to a Weekly Standard article by Andy Kessler exploring this same idea.  Interesting additions to the discussion at both sites.

More Evil from Google/Sun

This morning one of my PCs had a little pop-up balloon asking for permission to download an update.  This is the computer that my wife normally uses and I rarely use it except to check it for updates. The program that wanted to update was Sun’s Java runtime.  I figured this was probably a good idea so I told it to go ahead.

Where’s the evil?  The update wizard tried to sneak in an installation of the Google Toolbar.  If you accept the default options, and just click “Next” through the wizard, you get the Google toolbar installed along with the Java runtime update.  The Google toolbar has absolutely nothing to do with keeping my Java runtime up to date, but for some reason, they try to sneak it in.  I dislike bundling in general, but I really dislike it when the default behavior of programs is to bundle.  I didn’t like it when the MSN Messenger defaulted to change my homepage and search settings, and I especially don’t like it when software “updates” are used to sneak software onto my machine.

Thankfully (I guess…) my wife never updates her machine.  She’s totally immune to Windows Update pop-ups, or even the Onecare beta’s yellow or even red icons.  I say thankfully because if she had run the update, I’m almost certain that she would’ve next-clicked her way through the defaults, and then she would have been complaining that her IE window was getting cluttered by the toolbar.

Companies need to remember that for most folks, Sneaky == Evil.  Every time you gain a user through sneaky bundling, you lose some consumer trust.  Google is in a tight spot because a great deal of their business value, their market value even, is based on users trusting them with personal information.  Without a high level of consumer trust, Google is just another advertising platform serving up irrelevant ads.

How could this be better?  If you must bundle unrelated software, require explicit and obvious consent.  A pre-checked box in the middle of an update wizard is not explicit and obvious.  Better yet, toss out the bundling, and win customers based on the merits of your product. 

Go Read Creating Passionate Users

Kathy Sierra and the rest of the crew over at Creating Passionate Users consistently impress me with their witty, sometimes irreverent style of blogging about business decision making and marketing.  Sometimes I laugh, sometimes I just sit back and think, but without fail, it’s interesting.  Some of my favorite posts include:

Death by Risk Aversion

Real Motivational Posters

Physics of Passion: The Koolaid Point

Most Classroom Learning Sucks

And there’s a whole history of interesting posts.  If you ever need to give your brain a workout, just browse through some of the older posts.

(This has been a positive post brought to you by the positive post project)

Search Champs v4 Redux

Search Champs was a great experience, and I wanted to capture a few thoughts:

  1. The Microsoft employees that we interacted with are very passionate about making great services, and part of that is listening to criticism.  They invited folks who were very likely to provide hard critical feedback, and they received plenty of very vocal feedback.

  2. If you put a bunch of geeks in a bar, the conversations can be pretty interesting.  The evening after we all arrived, they took us all out to a bar in Seattle for a reception.  It was weird to be shouting over the music, discussing technical details of this or that service.  The next evening, it was the same story at the restaurant.

  3. Search Engine Optimizers (SEO’s) and Search Engine Marketers (SEM’s) are people too.

  4. Robert Scoble is NOT an edge case.  Just ask him 😉  ( I was two seats over when this audio was taken ).  As a corollary, Robert Scoble is a good sport.

  5. When they say to meet your driver at 7:00am, don’t wait until 7:02am to be in front of the hotel.  I ended up taking a cab to the airport.

My brain is still full from the experience.  I’ve got some thoughts on Live Labs, Expo, and MSN’s stance on privacy.  Hopefully I’ll find some time to get those written out soon.