When my company launched Windows NT Magazine in 1995, the NT community was alive and well. We believed we were on the brink of something special—that NT would let PCs eventually handle any IT computing problem we could throw at them. The early NT adopters were as enthusiastic as the most rabid Linux follower is today. The NT community helped build the NT industry into the market leader it now is. But is Microsoft grateful for our loyalty and support? Not that I can tell.
In 1995, Novell NetWare constituted 70 percent of the file and print market, and the UNIX and AS/400 platforms dominated the business application market. NT was a toy. Microsoft talked about only Windows 95, and few Microsoft employees knew what enterprise computing was about.
Microsoft pursued the commercial software developer community with enthusiasm by practically giving away the OS, a tactic that ensured ample numbers of customers for the newly developed applications, and by making it easy to develop server applications as desktop applications. Compared with NetWare, the NT platform presented a dream development platform, and the promise of a huge installation base lured software companies away from other platforms to NT.
With the launch of NT 4.0, Microsoft emphasized grass-roots marketing efforts. Microsoft helped launch user groups, enthusiast parties at trade shows, and other community-building initiatives that centered on products such as SQL Server, Exchange Server, and IIS. NT was never about hiring the Rolling Stones to pitch the product. It was about supporting the community. The buzz turned into market share—NT's share of the server market soared from 0 percent to 40 percent in 5 years. NetWare became a minor player, UNIX vendors fought for the leftovers in the high-end enterprise market, and NT replaced UNIX as the most popular high-end workstation OS.
Then a funny thing happened. Microsoft ran into heavy resistance in the enterprise market. IT administrators wanted more security, scalability, availability, and all the other abilities. Rather than elicit the IT community's help, Microsoft decided to follow the enterprise leader, IBM. Microsoft adopted IBM-like marketing and began promoting vague concepts rather than products and community. The result was "The Digital Nervous System," "One Degree of Separation," agile computing, and "The Business Internet Starts Here." Microsoft marketing executives told me, "We don't need to talk to our existing customers; they will upgrade anyway." So now that we're all married to Microsoft, the honeymoon is over. Microsoft can take us for granted.
The Death of Community
Before I helped launch Windows NT Magazine, I developed business applications for the AS/400 platform. I worked for an IBM shop and considered myself an IBM guru. A few months ago, my colleagues at iSeries NEWS, a magazine for IBM administrators, told me that the concept of an "IBM shop" died years ago. IBM spent so little time courting its community that the community simply died. IBM now makes most of its money servicing other vendors' products.
Meanwhile, the Linux community is thriving. Linux users want to see Linux change the world. They want Linux to be the tool they can use to solve business problems with off-the-shelf computing power in devices ranging from PCs to wristwatches. They want to accomplish this mission faster, cheaper, and better with the shared efforts of open-source developers, and they want to dethrone Microsoft. The Linux community has suffered setbacks. But Linux's share of the server market continues to increase, mostly at the expense of UNIX and NetWare. The Linux community reminds me of the NT market in 1995, except that the Windows community didn't hate anyone in the way the Linux folks seem to hate Gates.
Winning Them Back
The disparity between the Linux and Windows communities has caught Steve Ballmer's attention. He has directed his staff to start cultivating the community again. Microsoft is even considering marketing to its existing customers and, in rare moments, concedes that people will divorce Microsoft if the company doesn't take care of its marriage to customers.
To be fair, Gates has been courting developers again with the Microsoft .NET Framework. But Microsoft has ignored the Windows administrators, even though they account for 90 percent of the IT market by spending money on infrastructure and applications to keep their companies running. It's not that Microsoft's products aren't good—they are. But the company strives to increase its profits without helping its customers increase their profits. Here's a message to Microsoft from IT administrators: Reduce our costs, make our lives easier, and help us get projects approved—then we'll start liking you again. All we get from Microsoft today is increased licensing (subscription) fees for staying in place. Where's the reward for our loyalty, for spending billions of dollars on upgrades, and for staying true to the platform?
Microsoft needs to renew its vows to the Windows community. The company could start by empowering and funding an MVP group of users to drive the future direction of its products, services, marketing, and community-building efforts. The MVPs ideally would represent all the varied IT community members but would include an ample number of core developers and administrators—the technical decision makers who helped Microsoft get where it is today.
Gates had a simple vision—that PCs would eventually scale to handle any size of computing problem. NT was part of that solution. The other part was the early adopters who believed in that dream and used NT to make it happen. Unfortunately for Microsoft, the company might see the Linux community fulfill Gates's dream because achieving his vision is simpler, cheaper, and more fun with Linux than with Windows.