Is Everything Microsoft's Fault? Avoiding the Blame Game


This week I've seen two interesting pieces:

  1. Coverage of the SanDisk earnings conference, during which that company blamed Microsoft Vista for the fact that its solid state drives don't work well, though Toshiba and Samsung apparently aren't reporting similar problems at the moment
  2. a piece by Walt Mossberg pointing out that Apple's MobileMe doesn't work and voicing some skepticism of Apple's excuse that it's all Microsoft's fault, even though Apple has been working on this for over a year and ActiveSync was never designed to work as a cloud service
For much of my time covering Microsoft, it seems that whenever anyone has a problem anywhere near a Microsoft product, it is Microsoft's fault. While it undoubtedly is sometimes true, in many of the instances I've personally looked into, at best it was a shared problem and often it was the firm pointing the finger that was actually was at fault.


Let's talk about why this exists, why it is bad for the industry, and how it could be corrected.


Microsoft Should Buy the Target Logo


Microsoft rarely touches the customer. It is more of an ingredient provider. Yet back when I was measuring customer satisfaction across vendors, I ran into an interesting statistic.


Those that paid extra for support from Microsoft were vastly more likely to be satisfied than those that didn't. It kind of sounded like some kind of organized crime thing where, if you didn't pay, Microsoft caused you to break more often.


But, in looking at the cause of the difference, it became clear that the real reason was that when people were working directly with Microsoft, rather than a reseller or OEM, they got to solutions while the Microsoft partner would more often just complain about Microsoft.


In one instance, I had been made aware of a company that was so upset with Microsoft and Dell that it was switching to Linux. I discovered that the firm had been manipulated by its service provider. This provider had low-balled its way into the account and then manipulated the situation to make both Dell and Microsoft look bad so it could do a very expensive migration. This migration entrenched it into the account and vastly increased revenue from that account. It was brilliantly, if not too honestly, done.


In another instance, during the DoJ trials, Real Networks testified that Microsoft was intentionally breaking its technology. It actually turned out that Real Networks hadn't followed the published guidelines, which is what caused the problem. It was easier for the engineering staff to blame Microsoft than to actually do causal analysis and fix the problem.


Why Blaming Microsoft, and Focusing on Blame in General, Is a Bad Thing


It's too easy and too often inaccurate. If, as I suspect, the problem with the SanDisk controller is that it was poorly designed, then the real fix, which doesn't hinge on Microsoft, could happen much more quickly.


More importantly, publicly blaming Microsoft for the problem is probably not going to make Microsoft eager to work with SanDisk to fix it -- even if Mirosoft is at fault. That makes laying blame seem counterproductive in all cases. Think about your own shop. How many times have you heard that a problem is related to Microsoft's technology? How many times do you think that this was probably not true and just used to buy time or to prevent blame?


Blame Doesn't Fix Anything


Focusing on blame works against fixing any problem. Look at the cost of gas, for example. If you focus on finding ways to conserve gas, rather than blaming government, you can actually mitigate the problem.


This may actually be one of the real values of Linux in that it makes it much harder to find someone else to blame and forces people to work on fixing a problem.


Fixing the Problem


I'm a big believer in results and solutions-oriented approaches. The other day, I was contacted by a disgruntled employee who wanted my help in fixing a "clueless" CEO. My response was to find a new company to work for because that would get them the result they actually wanted more quickly.


People waste way too much time on finding people or companies to blame. That same effort could often fix the very problem they are complaining about. Back at IBM, we argued for months in huge meetings about a bug in a piece of software. Finally, two managers got fed up and fixed the bugs by working through a weekend. This took a fraction of the resources we were wasting arguing about whose fault the problem was.


I believe people are paid to overcome obstacles, not be incredibly proficient at finding, creating or listing them. Yet we all know people who seem to thrive on doing exactly that. I generally believe that the real fix often has to do with getting rid of those people.