The contradictory guidance coming out of Microsoft is so paradoxical, it's almost diabolical. On the one hand, you have the Kremlin-style secrecy of the new Windows Division, which has apparently convinced the company's CEO that it hasn't really thought about Windows Vista SP1 or future Windows versions because Microsoft is so busy managing the success of its latest Windows release. And on the other, you have guys like Microsoft COO Kevin Turner, who last week publicly pronounced that the company would follow up its Vista and Microsoft Office 2007 "big dog" releases with more major OS and office productivity suite releases.
So what's it going to be, Microsoft? As a technology watchdog and advocate of the users of Microsoft's systems, I obviously have a big personal and professional stake in this information. People like me factor pretty low in Microsoft's deliberations, which is fine. But what about the company's business customers, who need detailed information about what Microsoft intends to ship over the next several years so that they can budget and plan? After all, this segment of Microsoft's customer base is its largest and spends the most money. These are customers that should really matter to Microsoft.
It's troublesome, then, to observe how ill-served these customers are by Microsoft's silence. For a company that promotes transparency in a new age of instant-publication bloggers and online technology enthusiasts, Microsoft hasn't exactly done much to communicate its strategy for updating its most important business of all: Windows.
How bad is this problem? In 2006, Microsoft briefed me on the record about its plans for Vista SP1, which I was told would ship alongside Windows Server 2008. Since that time, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer has recoiled from press questions about SP1 on two occasions, stating publicly that the company hadn't even thought about that release yet, and had no concrete plans for what it might include. Vista was so good, he said, that SP1 might not be necessary.
Today, of course, we know that Vista SP1 is coming and will include security-oriented changes to appease competitors such as Symantec and McAfee, and that it will include Instant Search changes oriented toward quelling antitrust complaints from Google. Aside from a slew of expected bug and security fixes, however, we know very little about Vista SP1. And as we gaze out toward the next major Windows release, currently code-named Windows Seven, the picture is even murkier. Microsoft recently published and then pulled a wish-list of features that beta testers were hoping to see addressed. It's as if someone at Microsoft didn't get the memo about the importance of transparency, so they think that open communication is passé.
Obviously, there's a thin line between promoting future Windows releases and killing sales of the current version. Perhaps Vista isn't selling as well as Microsoft had hoped, and it's remaining mum on future versions in order to salvage whatever sales they can. Or perhaps the company is gun-shy after Vista's lengthy five-year development time and disappointments over promised features that were never delivered. My understanding is that Vista is the foundation for the next few Windows releases, and as such, no one should be surprised to discover that Microsoft will build off Vista and create improved products in the future.
Although technology enthusiasts are no doubt eager to discover what Microsoft is planning for future Windows releases, the company should simply focus on the customers that really need the information. This type of secrecy might make sense with consumer electronics, where companies such as Apple have elevated prerelease silence to an art form. But Microsoft's slow-moving corporate customers want guidance. And the last time I checked, those were the guys driving Microsoft's sales. Maybe Microsoft could take a page from Dell's playbook and discover how it can better serve its customers. All we really want is a bit of clarity.