imho \im-hö\ abbr In My Humble Opinion

Previously, in imho:

12/16/00 Windows IS a Monopoly After All. Microsoft's latest moves just serve to prove the point.
10/00 Is Anyone Home At Symantec? SystemWorks users should uninstall before updating to WinME.
10/00 Office Rant. Upgrade hell with Office updates, or how it now takes Thom three CDs to reinstall.

Windows IS a Monopoly After All
When revenues are down, a monopoly raises its prices...

No sooner had Microsoft posted its first warning of a revenue shortfall did we learn just what kind of business they think they are. "We are responding to customer demand," Simon Hughes, Microsoft's program manager for volume-licensing, was quoted as saying. Let's see now, when I went to business school, higher prices were a result of higher demand, not lower demand. Of course, Microsoft claims that higher demand for Windows 2000 means higher prices for Windows 95/98/ME. Huh?

Windows 2000 revenues aren't what Microsoft forecast, despite that claim of "higher demand." The way to increase those revenues? Force large-volume business customers to give up on the Windows 9x platform and switch to the higher-priced Windows 2000. This is actually a double-whammy for corporations, who face a per-seat increase in operating system costs no matter what Windows version they choose to use. These are the actions of a monopoly. Need revenue? Increase cost. Ignore what that does to customers.

Frankly, I've expected a Microsoft growth slowdown for some time. The reason? Other than perhaps Windows NT, none of their products have had a compelling upgrade in quite some time. Windows 98 was merely an expensive bug-fix for Windows 95. Windows ME was even more of a sham. Office 97 added few solid features beyond Office 95, but added a host of new bugs and problems. Office 2000, while also adding some interesting features, still wasn't compelling, and substantial bugs in Office 97 weren't addressed. On the Macintosh Office side, things have been slightly better, but excuse me, US$299 for an upgrade that isn't even OS X native, doesn't come with a manual (!), and still doesn't get the Mac to parity with the PC? (Where's Access? Where's Front Page? Where's Visio? Where's Publisher?) How many reasons are there to upgrade a Microsoft product these days? Fast approaching none. And how are upgrades as a value proposition to the customer? Approaching zero.

The real story is that Microsoft is doing less and less for its customer base while it remains addicted to high upgrade prices. Microsoft has entered a downward spiral that will be considerably difficult to recover from. It's really too bad that Apple fumbled away the future. They--and versions of Linux--are all that keep us users from slipping into a total Microsoft lockdown in mediocrity.

On the plus side: Microsoft seems to have ignored Linux a bit too long. While they pushed their mediocre upgrades on the world, Linux slowly blossomed into a viable alternative, including the availability of office-strength applications. How many businesses will now make the decision to switch to Linux instead of Windows 2000? Methinks more than Microsoft expects. At least, that's what I hope, cause Microsoft clearly needs a wake-up call.

Is Anyone Home at Symantec?
A report from the twisty maze of upgrades...

Those of you who know me also know that I spent 20 years in the personal computer industry, often in the lead product management or designer role. During that time, I prided myself on my company's relationships with its customers. After all, without customers, why create the product in the first place? Over those years, I adopted one ironfast rule regarding product and OS upgrades: always try to do the right thing by the customer. Always.

Recently, I decided to update my desktop machine (a recent Dell Dimension XPS B733r--a very nice and fast computer, though the modem isn't quite up to the quality of the rest of the unit [1/10/00: the Bxxxr line has been discontinued] ) to Windows Millenium (WinME). I did so because of the promise of better peer-to-peer network support, hoping that two minor problems I had with my SnapServer would go away (one did, the other persisted).

Having upgraded computer systems a zillion times since 1976, I've had my share of problems, and have come to expect some post-upgrade sleuthing to iron out any difficulties that arise. But I wasn't exactly expecting the can't-get-there-from-here problem posed by my use of Symantec's SystemWorks.

Here's the short story: Norton SystemWorks 3.0 (2000) is not compatible with WinME. Considering that it is compatible with Windows 98 Second Edition, and that WinME isn't exactly a major update, I'd guess that most customers wouldn't even bother to check to see if they needed a new version of SystemWorks before upgrading their operating system. Judging from activity on various bulletin boards, including Symantec's own, I was far from the only one who upgraded to WinME without uninstalling SystemWorks 3.0. And now I've got a system that periodically crashes back to BIOS every now and then when I dial the Internet.

Of course, the crash problem might not be Norton SystemWorks [in fairness, it turned out it wasn't]. But in my attempt to find out where the problem was, I discovered the following: Old versions of SystemWorks can't be uninstalled on WinME. My post-upgrade sleuthing eventually led me to a page in Symantec's knowledge base, which verified this. Moreover, the information went on to say that fixing the problem would require "extensive manual uninstalling," including editing the Registry. But the kicker was that Symantec had no plans to document how to do so! Since system DLLs are involved, and WinME has a mind of its own when it comes to same, this is not an area to proceed without the help of those who created the product. The only way I can see out of the problem was to uninstall WinME, uninstall SystemWorks, then reinstall WinME, and even that might leave remnants in the registry I wouldn't know about.

What would I expect from supposedly major-league software developers? At a minimum, the following:

  1. Email or snail mail notification to registered users any time an OS upgrade breaks any existing piece of software. I wouldn't even mind if this were coupled with an upgrade solicitation; indeed, I'd welcome that. [About a month after this incident I received an upgrade mailing from Symantec. It was not obvious from the mailing that you shouldn't upgrade to WinME without first uninstalling SystemWorks 3.0]
  2. Full instructions on how to remove software when it does get broken by an OS upgrade.
  3. A full listing somewhere (a Web site is fine) of every file that gets installed by a program, and every system file that is replaced or modified by the program. Plus, in these days of that ugly Registry catchall: full listings of every registry entry added or modified by the program. (I asked a program manager at one software company recently if she had such lists, and she replied "the engineers won't give it to me." Yikes!) [Long-time users of SystemWorks will eventually discover that updating still leaves remnants from older versions in the Registry. Curiously, the CleanSweep portion of SystemWorks does not allow you to remove these hangarounds. Since I've been a "loyal" Symantec customer dating back to DOS 2.0 days, I've got a healthy number of Registry entries that are apparently no longer necessary, but no way of knowing which ones should be removed, and which ones should be left.]
  4. Better cooperation with the OS vendor. Better testing and notification by the OS vendor. Symantec knew that SystemWorks would break if a user updated to WinME. And since they wouldn't support that upgrade, they needed to encourage Microsoft to report the problem before installation begins. And Microsoft needs to do a better job of building their upgrades, especially when they're charging $89 for what amounts to a very minor update. Had they polled the top 20 software vendors on inconsistencies and checked for problem programs at installation, I wouldn't have gotten into the customer-loses situation I'm now in. Microsoft managed to do this reasonably well for Windows 2000, why didn't they bother for WinME?

No company gets everything right. But it sure seems to me that software has gotten far buggier and less well supported, while the companies that produce the software don't care as much about the customer experience as they do their quarterly earnings growth. Only problem is, that growth is usually due to favorable customer experience.

Footnote: [17 October, 2000. Here's one for you: despite the warning in the manual that you need to manually uninstall SystemWorks 2000 prior to attempting to install SystemWorks 2001, the very first message that the installer put up was "Uninstalling SystemWorks 2000." (I figured I had nothing to lose at this point, since my best alternative was to wipe the hard drive and do a clean OS install.) So I guess Symantec does know how to remove SystemWorks 2000, they just don't want to share that information with their customers. Of course, a close look at the Registry seems to indicate that a few bits and pieces were left behind, but they don't seem to affect the system.

Further snooping showed that my crash problem was related to the new Internet Connection Sharing function in WinME. Among other problems, I found that ICS had linked dial-up networking to NetBUI (not necessary--I'm not sharing my connection, the SnapServer has no need to dial out). So I've tweaked my Network settings to what I think they should be, cleaned up some old DLLs that had stuck around, and wait for the next crash...]

Office Rant
I guess Microsoft is more afraid of piracy than it is of mad customers...

While I'm on the subject of customer care, let's talk about Office upgrades. I've been a loyal Microsoft applications customer since before there was an Office. Heck, I remember when Microsoft Access was a telecommunications program, not a database.

But is this any way to treat a paying customer: Upgrade CDs for Office install only over existing installations. Now, since any long-term Windows user knows that you need to do a clean install of Windows every now and then to wipe out the detritus that seems to collect in the System Folder, what's that mean for a longtime Office customer? Well, it means that after my clean install of WinMEI had to get out the Office 97 CD and install it. Then I had to get out the Office 2000 Upgrade CD and install it. Then I had to get out the Office 2000 SR-1 Upgrade CD and apply it. And because my system also came with Word 2000 installed under Works, I eventually had to get that CD out, too. Of course, these tasks took well over an hour, what with all the file copying that goes on.

I understand Microsoft's desire to keep people from sharing CDs and upgrading multiple machines, but this is crazy. Penalizing all your customers because you can't come up with a reasonable scheme to lessen software theft is not the way to do business. Software theft is your problem, Microsoft, not mine. Having spent several thousand dollars in the last decade on Microsoft software, you'd think that they'd be a little worried about what I might think. But I see nothing to indicate they even care.

[Dec 18: Now that I've just had to rebuild my system file by file due to a problem that arose after attempting to upgrade to the new 5.5 browser (we Web site builders have to test all new browsers, unfortunately, since no two seem to recognize some commands the same), I must partially apologize to Microsoft and amend the previous paragraphs. You don't need to install each individual Office version first. If you attempt to upgrade when no previous version is installed on the machine, you'll be prompted for a source disk. I was somewhat confused by the fact that Office asked for my original floppy disk of Office, since, of course, Office has come on CD-ROMs for some time now. This still doesn't get rid of the annoying SR-1 problem, however. After you've installed Office 2000 and then fire up the Office 2000 SR-1 bug fix, you still get to swap CDs for quite some time. SR-1 asked for the Office 2000 CD, and then my Frontpage 2000 CD, and then the SR-1 CD one last time. And during this whole process, the system was required to reboot four times. As if all that weren't enough, you then still have to reload security patches for the software from Microsoft's Web site, which triggered three more reboots. Sigh.]

And for all this upgrading, does Word 2000 SR-1 work better than Word 97? Not if you use automatic section numbering, as I had to for a recent 150-page technical project. Every iteration of the document required me to go back in and reapply formatting to dozens of sections, sometimes more than once. Over and over I had to fight Word to keep it from labeling one section with 1.A.1 and the next one with 2.2.B. And when Word got the numbering right, it often lost track of margins, indenting and outdenting at its whim. I was slightly amused when loading the PC format file on a Mac got half of the numbering right (about twice as much as the PC Office version did), but only slightly.

Does anyone wonder why I try to avoid using Microsoft Word when I write my books?

[I understand from recent Office purchasers that the new Registration Wizard may solve at least some of the upgrade problem. Unfortunately, now we've got a new set of problems to deal with, especially those of us who regularly upgrade their systems, as the Wizard tries to lock the installation to a particular machine and setup (to keep buyers from installing the software on multiple machines). Again, Microsoft is trying to solve their problem (software piracy) at the expense of user convenience. I guess when you're an unregulated monopoly, you think like that. At least until some quick-moving competitor appears and changes the game.]