Web Informant #143, 22 February 1999:
Microsoft should pay for lost productivity


My essay on Microsoft last week sparked lots of comments. Here is one from Mark Hurst, president of Creative Good.

David, I loved your last Web Informant, but I just can't agree with you about sympathy for Microsoft that "the average end user's Internet experience is better off today with Microsoft products."

To be sure, some of Microsoft's websites, like Expedia and Sidewalk, are well done. And Microsoft spends a great deal of time and money on usability testing, which is good. But looking at Microsoft products *as a whole*, I just can't thank Microsoft for what it has created for the average online user.

Part of the usability problem lies within Windows, whose difficulties inevitably seep into the user's Net experience. I present as evidence the enduring legacy of DOS, all too frequent blue-screen crashes, and the Start button that points to "Shut down".

Another frustrating aspect in Microsoft's online user experience is its featuritis, as shown in Win98's Active Desktop and Channels. Did the average user ever ask for the Disney logo to fly around her desktop? Does the average user want to know what the Active Desktop *is*?

The Microsoft trial has, if anything, underscored the company's apparent ignorance (or indifference) to the plight of the average online user. On February 12, Microsoft claimed, with a straight face, that it is fast and easy for users to download its browser:

WASHINGTON (AP) - The government challenged a senior Microsoft executive Thursday on his claim that people can quickly and easily download Web browsers over the Internet.

Meanwhile, my grandmother was just chatting with me about upgrading from Microsoft IE v4.0 to v4.1, in order to enhance the Java Virtual Machine capabilities for better cross-platform compliance. That was just before she installed some missing DLLs, debugged the registry file, and solved Fermat's last theorem. (Right.)

My company has run user tests with real, live "average online users," and I can assure you that they are interested in none of these features. Not DLLs, not the Active Desktop, not downloading new browsers. Their tolerance for complexity goes only as far as the Back button.

The kind of online user experience these users *do* want is exemplified by companies like Yahoo, AOL, and Amazon -- all wildly successful companies, all of which are committed to ease-of-use. Not flashy features, but ease-of-use. It's no surprise that the iMac, designed specifically to simplify the Net experience for the average user, is also a success.

I'm not going to take sides on the other legalities in the Microsoft trial, but I will maintain that users deserve a better user experience online. And Microsoft can deliver it.

Here's a modest proposal for the DOJ. Run some user tests to see if there's any productivity loss for an average user on IE, versus using AOL (or Windows versus MacOS, whichever). Base the fine on the dollar amount it costs the U.S. in lost productivity and increased tech support to keep the Microsoft standard. Microsoft either starts making its products truly easy to use, or it pays the fine.

Grannie, help is on the way.

David Strom
+1 (516) 944-3407
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