Lessons from the Windows Vista Era

On October 22, Microsoft will release Windows 7, thereby effectively ending the Windows Vista era for consumers. That day can’t come too quickly: Windows Vista will go down in history as a period of trial and tribulation for Microsoft – and for many consumers who used the product, particularly during its early days.

Vista Package

There are too many product strategy insights to be learned from the Windows Vista era to fit into one blog post. Let’s look at some of the major lessons – those that can be generalized to consumer product strategies in any industry. And let’s quickly extract both the “sins” of product strategy and some general product strategy lessons provided by the Windows Vista experience:

Consumers need a compelling reason to adopt an OS (or any product). Both Microsoft and Apple have trained consumers to embrace their periodic product release rituals: It’s time for our new OS release, get ready to upgrade! But consumers do need a positive inducement to make the move – making sure there’s a compelling reason to purchase should be product strategy 101. Yet with Windows Vista, consumers were never really sure why they should upgrade from XP (an OS they already liked).  The new features that Microsoft touted for Vista didn’t really deliver (see below), either. Altogether, this meant that Vista was sometimes force-fed on consumers when they purchased new PCs (along normal replacement cycles).
Sins: Lack of purpose for the product, under-delivery on promises.
Lessons: Make sure the product has clear user benefits, that it doesn’t over-promise and under-deliver, and that consumers understand what these benefits will be.

The developer ecosystem (and all other partners) must be engaged and prepared. Microsoft, which has cultivated one of the most sophisticated and robust software developer ecosystems in the world, uncharacteristically dropped the ball with Windows Vista. Despite 5 years of development, Microsoft didn’t rally developers quickly enough. Hardware and software drivers simply weren’t available at launch, creating widespread breakage – and breaking Vista’s image along with them. The Windows Vista Compatibility Center launched 17 months too late to salvage Vista’s reputation, even after drivers and software updates did eventually become available. 
Sins: Poor strategy execution, poor partner management.
Lessons:  Developers play a central role in the success of an OS. Third parties in general play a central role in the success of many product strategies.

The OS (or any product) must create a legitimately excellent user experience. In addition to hardware and software breakage, the actual user experience of Windows Vista was restrictive and, for many, unpleasant. Microsoft assumed that Moore’s Law was continuing to increase hardware capacity at hockey-stick pace – and netbooks came on to the market not too long thereafter. Consequently, the heavy client program bogged users down with too little speed and too much bloat. Users also hated many design decisions, particularly User Access Control (UAC) – as evidenced by participants in the www.IhateVista.co.uk Web site. Taken together, the product didn’t thrill customers, particularly prior to Service Pack releases that improved performance.
Sins: Poor product design, flawed forecasting.  
Lessons: Place the consumer’s experience of the product at the center of all OS development efforts. Place customer experience at the center of all product strategies.

Consumers need a ‘laboratory’ for learning the OS (or any product). For many consumers, a new OS presents a steep learning curve. Users – particularly in the mass market, low-engagement consumers segments – need someone – or someplace – to help them learn the ropes. The Apple Store provides this function with top-rate sales associates. Strong user group networks of Mac users (e.g. Washington Apple Pi in the D.C. area) offer another source of training – along with your neighborhood Mac fanatic brand advocate, who can teach you the ropes. For Windows, the office/workplace can be a central training ground – indeed, companies pay good money to have their employees trained in how to use their PCs. But Windows Vista failed to gain ground among enterprises, reducing the opportunities for consumers to learn. (Where else could users learn about Vista? Best Buy isn’t exactly the Apple Store when it comes to teaching an OS).
Sins: Low level engagement with consumers, flawed channel strategy.
Lessons: Provide consumers with OS socialization and training, one way or another. Develop a deep, iterated relationship with consumers to promote your product.

The OS (or any product) must capture and retain mindshare. Windows Vista’s flaws weren’t tucked away in a back room – they were played out in a very public way in the media (both old and new). Apple went on the attack with its virulently anti-Windows attack ads. (http://www.apple.com/getamac/ads/)  And Microsoft lacked a strong proactive PR and advertising strategy to counter any of these problems. Result? Windows lost mindshare and the perception battle.
Sins: Poor PR management, underinvestment in branding and advertising.
Lessons: Manage the perception game.

 

The Windows Vista experience provides powerful consumer product strategy lessons for any industry. Happily, it also seems to have taught Microsoft quite a few business lessons. In future blog posts, we’ll look at how Windows 7 will provide a fresh start for Microsoft and how it avoids many of the sins associated with Windows Vista.