RECENTLY I GOT to spend some quality time with several members of Microsoft CEO Steve Balmer’s management team in Toronto. It was a fascinating exercise. Not only did I learn that Microsoft is doing very nicely, thanks (even if Apple’s highly vocal community would try to have us all believe otherwise), but that they also have a plan. Funnily enough, I didn’t get to hear the details around this plan, but one thing became abundantly clear: the world’s biggest software company has been quietly doing some good stuff.
The transformation might not be that obvious, but it is nonetheless pretty startling when you stop and take a closer look. Back in the ’90s Windows was a crash prone nightmare, and Microsoft was the corporate people worldwide loved to hate. Since then a funny thing has happened. Microsoft are slowly becoming the good guys, while Apple (who were then seen as the antidote to evil Microsoft) are rapidly falling from grace on the back of pointless patent litigations and greedy corporate decisions.
Don’t get me wrong, Microsoft still have a few snafu’s to sort out (and don’t get me started on installing Windows 8, either), but the sheer scale of change for the Microsoft brand is truly something to behold. Perhaps one of the most potent indicators of this change has been Microsoft’s flagship email service, Outlook.com. When it launched and the initial hype died away, many sceptics doubted it would survive against Gmail. Well guess what. The numbers are in and the little email service that could now has over 25 million active users, with many (myself included) switching away from the previous industry gold standard for email, Gmail.
The Outlook.com team say that a full one-third of all Outlook users are active Gmail users who are trying it out for the first time. Having used Outlook since it launched I can see why many would move. Outlook.com’s clean user interface and the sheer amount of thought put into not annoying the bejesus out of me makes it a real winner.
The really amazing thing is that I’d long been a hardcore Google supporter. I still use and swear by my HTC One X Android phone (it is an awesome device), but it was here that a growing number of annoyances crept in. Being an avid Google+ user (someone had to be, right?) I was shocked and dismayed to discover that all my Google+ contacts had synced across to my phone. At no time was I asked if I wanted this to happen; one morning they were just there. Trying to find the phone number of a friend now involves sifting through tens of thousands of Google+ contacts, none of whom I am ever going to phone let alone email. I didn’t ask for this, I don’t want this, and worst of all, there is no easy way to get rid of all these contacts. Thanks a bunch, Google.
In isolation, that issue might have been forgivable, but then there was the added annoyance of Google+ events. In theory these sound like an 11 out of 10 on the awesome-o-metre. Trouble is, in practice they’re a total pain in the dog. Like everything else Google designs, the annoyances associated with events should have been both avoidable and fixable. But they are not. With Google events a fellow Google+ user can invite you to attend a video conference on a specific topic. This is especially cool if you’ve got a good broadband connection and a webcam. But most of the invites come from the east coast of the USA, which means my phone (if left on) would beep to notify me at 3am that I was to attend some event. That I was never given the option of saying yes, I would attend (or no, I wouldn’t) seemed to be besides the point. Either way, it was now 3am, my phone had woken both me and my wife up, all because Google couldn’t be arsed considering the needs of the end user when it came to the design of their products.
So, having decided that enough was enough, I did what anyone in my situation would do: I dumped Gmail and migrated across to Outlook. Since then I’ve never looked back. Sure, Hotmail had a deserved and terrible reputation as an appallingly designed spam magnet, but Outlook.com is awesome. Not only does it do a better job of blocking spam and unwanted messages, the thoughtful integration of SkyDrive means sharing photos and documents is a no brainer. Add an online version of Word, Excel and PowerPoint into the mix, and there’s a whole lot to like.
Having been given a rare chance to shout from the rooftops, Microsoft also announced a bunch of new gee-wiz Outlook features, including new colour themes, keyboard shortcuts, a one-click archiving feature, plus something I actually miss from the train-wreck that was Gmail: conversation threading. Not content with these shiny new bits, the Outlook team also launched an Android Outlook app.
So having had a bitch about the annoyances of Google and the merits of Microsoft (doing so feels weird, believe me), what is the moral of the story? It’s this: If you don’t design your products with end-users like you or me in mind, your products will more often than not be a total pain in the ass. All it takes is for someone (enter stage left, Microsoft) who is hungry for some time in the limelight to appear to be very much about doing the right thing by the end user (us folks with the cheque book). After years of supporting Google I’ve pretty much dumped them for someone who sucks less. Game on. PAT PILCHER