As the first data restoration becomes available today to T-Mobile Sidekick users who lost contacts, photos and other information stored on their mobile devices, Microsoft execs are applying the lessons learned more broadly to enterprise offerings. Is a cell phone data loss problem actually caused by service provider/subsidiary Danger relevant? Well, handled badly, the Sidekick story could leave a lasting mark on the Microsoft brand. Handled well, maybe it'll turn out to be a case study in how to approach a widely publicized data loss.
This week is all about the Windows 7 launch and the SharePoint conference. But during his keynote at the SharePoint conference, CEO Steve Ballmer took the time to make clear that he does not intend to allow the Sidekick data problems to erode trust among the enterprise customers Microsoft is courting with SharePoint Online, the rest of the Business Productivity Online Suite, and the upcoming online Office apps. Saying, "People will want to know, is our approach different for SharePoint Online, is our approach different for the enterprise infrastructure," he sketched out a plan to answer those questions before they have to be repeated too many times, and showed that the talking points on this issue are in effect, correcting a reference to lost data with clarification on whether data was lost, what is being done to fix the problem, and a statement of his confidence that all will end well.
And if you're feeling skeptical about how much effect a consumer device and data storage service breakdown could have on companies' attitudes toward Microsoft's enterprise software and services, consider that companies that are currently evaluating cloud-based offerings, whether from Microsoft or any other vendor, will be adding a long list of new questions to their vetting process, along the lines of the questions that David Moorman suggests here. A general unease with service levels hasn't been shaken yet, as surveys continue to show. The fear of being taken down with the service provider in the event of a data loss spreads further every time a huge name like Microsoft or Google is associated with a data loss or service interruption, no matter how temporary.
One of the observations I've been seeing in the last few days leading up to the Windows 7 launch is that the Win7 team seems to have understood the needs of the end user, not just the admin, and has done a better job of both communicating on that point and following through in development than the Windows Vista team did. I also note that one of the cautions to the SharePoint team right now is that they should be mindful that they don't go too far in the other direction -- focusing too much on feature sets designed to satisfy admins, but destined to overwhelm and confuse end users.
Business communications are easy to critique, but hard to execute well. For an industry giant, communicating with IT execs and end users at the same time can mean that someone is going to get the wrong message, but perhaps ironically, responding to bad news can make the process simpler: Over-communicate and treat the event like a big deal, even if you suspect it might not be.
Ballmer and Microsoft actually have the opportunity to be the good guys in this story. But we're not at the end yet, and that is not a given at this point. A colleague, a long-time T-Mobile customer and a Sidekick user since June of this year, told me today that she continues to be a satisfied T-Mobile customer, even though she did lose her Sidekick data, because the company communicated with her clearly, continuously and honestly (she believes) over several weeks. "My experience with T-Mobile gave me more trust in them during this," she said, "but for other customers, it may not have. I'm pretty miffed that Microsoft looks lily white here and T-Mobile has lawsuits pending now."