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Microsoft Customers Always Win

In 2011, when Windows 8’s “Metro” was in beta and everyone had high hopes for it, I wrote:

The question isn’t whether Metro will be good: it probably will be. … But how will their customers react?

Will Metro be meaningfully adopted by PC users? Or will it be a layer that most users disable immediately or use briefly and then forget about, like Mac OS X’s Dashboard, in which case they’ll deride the Metro-only tablets as “useless” and keep using Windows like they always have?

Microsoft’s customers don’t like change. They’re accustomed to getting everything they want, exactly as they want it, with no surprises. They won’t tolerate anything else.

If Microsoft releases anything too different, enterprise customers will simply refuse to buy it, demanding that Microsoft keep selling the old version indefinitely. And every time, Microsoft caves, because what else are they going to do? They’re desperate for upgrade revenue from business customers who see diminishing returns and increasing transition costs with each new version of Windows and Office.

Today, The Verge reports (via Moltz):

While the software giant originally released Windows 8.1 last year with an option to bypass the “Metro” interface at boot, sources familiar with Microsoft’s plans have revealed to The Verge that the upcoming update for Windows 8.1 will enable this by default. Like many other changes in Update 1, we’re told the reason for the reversal is to improve the OS for keyboard and mouse users.

Bye, Metro.

It’s not that Microsoft is incapable of making radical changes. Not only was Windows 8 the most bold move they’ve made since Windows 95, but it wasn’t even bad. It wasn’t great, but it wasn’t bad. Microsoft truly innovated with the UI to a greater extent than we’ve ever seen from them.

Their customers, as usual, smacked them back into line.

Adoption has been abysmal, PC manufacturers are advertising Windows 7 downgrades as features (much like they did from Vista to XP), and the Surface tablets have sold very poorly. Windows 8 has been one of the biggest disasters in Microsoft’s history.

They did everything that the press, analysts, and prevailing wisdom at the time were telling them to do. Everyone was pressuring them to be more like Apple, so they tried.

The problem isn’t that they botched it (although they did, in some ways). The problem is that Microsoft isn’t Apple, and Microsoft’s customers aren’t Apple’s customers. They tried selling a more Apple-like attitude to their customers, most of whom don’t want and won’t tolerate an Apple-like attitude. That’s why they’re not Apple customers.

Microsoft’s customers have always demanded, and will always get, exactly what they ask for. That’s the reality of serving the low- to midrange-PC business, and it’s sure as hell the reality of the enterprise business.

Microsoft’s biggest strategic mistake over the last five years has been forgetting who their customers really are.