Microsoft needlessly botched getting timely updates for Windows Phone 7 to customers and antagonised some of its most loyal fans by not delivering on its promises, a crisis communication expert said today.
"There are two kinds of crises, ones that you cannot anticipate, like a natural disaster, and those that you can," said Patrick Kerley, a senior digital strategist with Levick Strategic Communications, a Washington, DC-based crisis management firm.
"Microsoft's dealing with the second," said Kerley, referring to the public relations problem the company has on its hands after failing to deliver updates for Windows Phone 7.
Last week, Microsoft published schedules for the first two updates of its new mobile operating system, a move that prompted customers to rage about broken promises and an opaque timetable.
That followed comments by Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer last month that the latest update, nicknamed 'NoDo', would be released in the first half of March. Within weeks, Eric Hautala, the general manager of Windows Phone 7's customer experience engineering team, retracted that, saying that the NoDo update would be delayed until the second half of this month.
According to Microsoft, no US users have yet seen the NoDo update, although yesterday T-Mobile said it was pushing the update to owners of the HTC HD7. And today, Dell said that T-Mobile was starting updates for its Venue Pro.
Last week, Joe Belfiore, the Microsoft executive responsible for Windows Phone 7's design, apologised to customers, acknowledging that he was wrong when he said earlier that most users had received last month's update.
Users had accused Belfiore of coming across as flippant and insensitive to their frustrations over waiting months for updates, and appearing to be out of touch with the reality of a process they claimed was clearly broken. Some called for Belfiore to step down.
Belfiore said he had not been ready with the facts when he was filmed for a video posted on Microsoft's site, during which he said that updates were going out. "I wasn't as prepared for this interview as I should have been ... and I didn't have the right up-to-date information to give a good explanation on updates," Belfiore said.
Kerley said Microsoft should have anticipated the problems rolling out updates.
"With their numerous partners, both phone makers and carriers, they should have anticipated that [there was] going to be some stuff outside their control," said Kerley, referring to the process under which Microsoft completes the update, then passes it off to carriers for additional testing.
Microsoft's mistakes included telling customers that the updates were "completed" when in fact those updates were weeks away from being delivered, said Kerley, as well as not pushing the carriers to wrap up their testing faster.
"Microsoft should have anticipated [the backlash]," said Kerley, and now is reaping what it's sown. "Microsoft is the common denominator here, not the carriers, so Microsoft is the focus of the negative response."
"Apple waits until they can do it right," said Kerley, talking about situations where Apple's been flooded with consumer complaints, as it was last summer when customers griped about the iPhone 4's antenna problem or when users demanded additional features after the 2007 launch of the first-generation iPhone.
"Apple has a history of executing, making sure it's done right," said Kerley, who gave Apple a C- grade last year for the company's handling of what CEO Steve Jobs called "Antennagate."
Microsoft faces the same problems that Apple does, Kerley argued, and so the comparison is fair. "It's not like Apple doesn't have to have carriers test its iPhone updates," he said.
Part of Microsoft's problem stems from the territory it's staked out. Apple, for example, uses a closed ecosystem that it completely controls - including manufacturing the phones - while Google has taken a different tack, giving users more freedom to modify their Android-based smartphones and ceding updates to a wide range of handset makers and carriers.
"The way that Microsoft has positioned itself, it's the worst of both worlds," Kerley maintained. "It wants to control the update process but it's trying to work across a disparate ecosystem."
And Microsoft may have rushed the updates, or at least told customers they were coming, because it faces an uphill battle in the smartphone operating system market.
"There's a feeling here that in its rush to catch up [with Apple and Google], it may have tried to add features that hadn't been tested enough," Kerley said.
The update debacle doesn't mean Windows Phone 7 is sunk, said Kerley, even though many of the complaining customers - influential "early adopters" - are exactly the ones Microsoft must satisfy.
"They need to act a little more like a startup," said Kerley, "and tell people 'here's what we can say that's true', and 'here's what we can say that we're working on'. It needs to show customers that it's learning from its mistakes. But they're playing catch-up and Microsoft isn't used to not being dominant."
The Windows Phone 7 part of Microsoft could learn some lessons from Microsoft's Xbox group, which has faced consumer complaints in the past, notably about faulty game consoles. In 2007, Microsoft took a $1 billion charge against earnings to account for an "unacceptable" number of hardware failures of the Xbox 360.
"Microsoft needs to make sure its fan base sticks with it through thick and thin," said Kerley, "as they did with the Xbox."