Microsoft's head of corporate communications defended his company's Windows information disclosure strategy Tuesday, denying that Microsoft has adopted Apple's "cone of silence" approach to imparting news.
"We know we're not Apple," Frank X. Shaw, Microsoft's top communications executive, said in an interview yesterday. "We would love to have control all along the stack, as Apple does. But that's not the business we're in."
Frank X. Shaw, Microsoft's Corporate Vice President, Corporate Communication, in a photo he uses on his Twitter account. (Image: Frank X. Shaw.)
Microsoft's communications strategy, specifically the way it reveals information about Windows to a broad audience -- developers, PC makers, enterprise customers, consumers, the press and analysts -- has been criticized by several of the latter. Windows 8 suffered because of Microsoft's penchant for withholding information, those analysts have contended.
Developers were not provided enough information and tools to craft top-quality apps for the Octover 2012 launch, OEMs were caught short of touch-enabled devices, and enterprises remain confused about why they should adopt the new OS, the arguments go.
Patrick Moorhead, principal analyst with Moor Insights & Strategy, has put it most succinctly when he claimed that Microsoft, seeing the success of Apple's habit of divulging nothing until a product announcement, copied the strategy. "Microsoft doesn't make a good Apple," Moorhead said in an interview Monday.
Shaw wasn't having any of that. "It's an easy shorthand for people to use, but it's not accurate," said Shaw of the Apple comparison. "We choose our strategy on the needs that we have. There are times when we will be more conservative and times when we will be more open."
Analysts, some who have requested anonymity for fear of risking their access to Microsoft, have been the most vocal about the relative paucity of information disclosed by the Redmond, Wash. developer, and have compared that strategy to what they saw as a more open communications game plan prior to Windows 7, which shipped in the fall of 2009.
The more secretive approach has been credited to Stephen Sinofsky, who until his ouster last year led the Windows division during development of Windows 7 and the follow-on, Windows 8. Sinofsky was known for keeping things under wraps when he led Office development for several editions, closing out his time on that team with Office 2007.
Shaw acknowledged that Microsoft's approach to doling out information to the media, analysts, developers and OEMs is different today. "Yes, it has changed, because the world we're living in has changed," said Shaw. "If you look at Windows 7 and then look at Windows 8, there were a whole bunch of things with Windows 8 that we wanted to keep more confidential than public. Look at the decision to build Windows 8 on ARM. That was held very closely.
"But I think that's a hard comparison to make," Shaw continued, speaking of the contrast between Windows 8 secrets and pre-Windows 7 openness. "Windows 8 represented a significant platform shift, with touch, Windows available on ARM as well as Intel, a new app model and a new store, and a new set of hardware from us."
In many cases, Microsoft has taken to parceling out information in small bits, a drip-drip-drip strategy that, to outsiders at least, seems to serve little purpose. The best illustration was when the company announced last week that it would release a public preview of Windows 8.1 at its BUILD conference in late June, but said it would provide other information, including pricing, "in a few weeks." Just seven days later, however, Tami Reller, CFO of the Windows division, said that update would be free.
When asked why Microsoft didn't simply give customers both pieces at the same time, Shaw did not directly answer. Instead, he said, "There are many options, and this was the one that we chose. We thought that it was the best way to get the information out."
Microsoft has made other communication missteps recently. Earlier this year, when news broke that it was permanently tying each retail Office 2013 license to the first PC it was installed on, and would not allow users to later move that license to another machine, the company limited the disclosure to the end-user licensing agreement (EULA), which very few people read, then only confirmed the move after several rounds of questions from Computerworld. In March, after a heated reaction from users, Microsoft backtracked from the licensing lock-in.
"There's a big continuum," Shaw said. "At times we are unbelievably transparent, at times we are moderately transparent, and at times we are quiet. What drives this is not a corporate one-size-fits-all strategy, but the demands of the product or service, and the marketplace."
Shaw also took exception to the point many have made that developers were not kept as informed about Windows 8 as in past iterations of the OS, and that what they did get was much later in the development cycle than in the past. That contributed to the Windows Store's app tally and the omission, still, of some major apps, such as one dedicated to Facebook, the theory goes.
"We did tons of work with developers and ISVs to get them ready and to train them," said Shaw, citing the 2011 BUILD conference and follow-on efforts. "The thing that people have to recognize is that until Windows 8 shipped, there were zero targeted devices."
And sans those devices, implied Shaw, it was no surprise that at launch the app store had relatively few apps. "Developers are rational creatures," he said, hinting that until they had hardware they could use to test their apps, they took a wait-and-see stance. "We had realistic expectations of what [the app store] would look like at launch. There was never a 'work-done' moment for us related to the launch."
In the interview, Shaw again blasted press coverage of Windows 8.1. Some stories and opinion pieces described the changes Microsoft might make with the update as a retreat from its previous vision for the OS, and compared Windows 8 to the Coca-Cola debacle of 1985, when within months of the introduction of "New Coke," the beverage giant yanked the reformulated soda.
Shaw's counter-attack drew criticism of its own, with Moorhead saying it was a sign of weakness for a company as large as Microsoft to be thin-skinned.
Shaw disagreed. "These things stick," he said of pieces by The Financial Times and The Economist, which he had earlier singled out as examples of what he called "sensationalism and hyperbole."
"If you don't do anything about it, it can become perceived wisdom," said Shaw, explaining why he wrote the Friday post. "If we don't say anything, then we shouldn't expect other people to read our minds. So we get our voice out there."
Speaking of New Coke, Shaw even had a take on the metaphor.
"If anything, Windows 8 is like Diet Coke," said Shaw. "Diet Coke was a product that mapped an entirely new need expressed by the marketplace, something that tasted just like Coke but had zero calories."
Diet Coke is the world's second-biggest soda, behind only Coke itself and ahead of Pepsi, which it passed in 2010.