Saturday 14 March 2009

Jack of all trades, master of none

Computers are very much like kids– whether it's my son deciding that despite Nintendo's best efforts to create a compelling gaming machine, it will just work better if its dropped a few times on the floor – or with my PC, despite purporting to allow me to type a document, it randomly decides that my fate lies better with a frozen screen and a failed autosave – you love them really, but sometimes they test your endurance to it's limits. So I was intrigued when Microsoft recently released their vision for the future of how we interact with new technology and I have to say it's well worth watching.

Yes, it's got the ubiquitous "Minority Report" style interface where we all stand-up with screens the size of white-boards, throwing things across the office virtually to each other, but it also has some other interesting predictions.

They see the use of e-paper technologies growing, with anything from an airline ticket to a newspaper acting as a display which can change it's content on request – this in itself has great potential for marketing communications – imagine a retail loyalty card which can be both your unique identifier, you points statement and your offers coupon. I was excited about this prospect when Fujitsu first demonstrated its colour e-paper prototype a couple of years ago and the technology is certainly gathering pace.

Another interesting thought is that of "context" – they show the display personalising itself to you as you drop your keys down on it or knowing that it's looking at a plant and providing an information overlay – much like a head-up display in a high-end BMW. This again could have great implications for marketing – imagine holding your display over an item in a store and being told all about it's specifications, where you can get the best price and what other people are saying about it.

These implications are something I'll pick-up on in another blog because I think there are some great trends for the future which could impact how consumers interact with companies.

Coming back down to earth for a moment though, the strangely worrying thing about all of these predictions is the Microsoft logo – I just don't think that they could deliver these kinds of slick, fast, intuitive user interfaces based on past performance – and that's a real shame. If this film had an Apple logo on it, I'd actually believe they could deliver it, and some people would be thinking that they'd be demoing it at the Macworld in 2010 – not 2019.

Now don't get me wrong here – I'm not an Apple fan – I don't "get" Apple and don't use any of their devices. Everything I have is Microsoft through and through – but as a Microsoft user I also know their limits.

I've recently installed Office 2007 and my user experience has never been so bad. It's slow, it's buggy and it randomly freezes. My email takes an eternity to open and when investigating the problem I find that Outlook 2007 has an "issue" with large amounts of email – anything over 2gb – so my 6gb is gonna be a big problem.

Apple has taken a different route here. When trying to get my father-in-laws new iPod to sync with his MacBook G4 I found out something about Apple – they don't care about backwards compatibility. For the iPod to work, I'd need the new operating system – full stop. No work around – no different software – it just doesn't work – and yet its ALL Apple kit.

For a Microsoft user this came as a big surprise and I initially ranted about how stuff I have from the early 1990's still works on my PC and I could actually get his iPod working on about 4 different Microsoft operating systems. However then the penny dropped – there is a reason why Mac can be more stable and more cutting edge – they don't try to carry the baggage of the past.

Before I jump down a technology rabbit hole though, this does provide some important insights into customer loyalty.

#1 - Customers expect you to get the basics right - I don't believe Microsoft can deliver on its promises because of past performance – they can't deliver a stable platform 100% of the time (I've already auto-recovered this blog once whilst typing it) so how can I believe they can deliver this vision for the future

#2 - Focus on your core customers – don't try to be everything to everyone – Apple realise that their most loyal (and profitable) customers will simply upgrade to get the best performance and new technologies. Many companies have failed because they didn't understand who their best customers were and focus their proposition around these.

It's important for companies to innovate, and for some companies creating a loyalty scheme is a great way of adding additional value for customers and engaging with them. However, if for example you're a retailer and you don't have the basics right, if you don't provide convenience, good prices and a wide range of goods then no amount of loyalty is going to mask these issues – customers just won't give you the benefit of the doubt.

Microsoft are a resilient company and I suspect that with the soon to be released service pack 2 for Office 2007 some of my performance and stability issues will settle down – they will however have to consider if they can continue to be a Jack of all trades and master of none.

I'd certainly like to seem them deliver their vision for the future - just as long as it doesn't come up with "An application error has occurred" whilst I'm trying to show my airline ticket at the gate!

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