So, in the wake of the rotten 12 months we've just left behind, you've undertaken a comprehensive review of who your strategic software partners will be in the years to come. Looking for overarching statements of commitment and policy from each potential partner, you come across this one, dated last week: "There are many changes [this company] needs to make as a company to ensure and keep our customers' trust at every level--from the way we develop software, to our support efforts, to our operational and business practices. As software has become ever more complex, interdependent, and interconnected, our reputation as a company has in turn become more vulnerable. Flaws in a single [company] product, service, or policy not only affect the quality of our platform and services overall, but also our customers' view of us as a company."
The above quote comes from Bill Gates. And Jiminy Christmas, it must be hard these days to be him. The guy is danged if he does, damned if he doesn't, and dissed if he does something in-between. If he cuts something, The New York Times trots out the hegemony theory, and the Electronic Freedom Foundation announces that nothing less than freedom of speech for every man, woman, child, parrot, and voice-synthesizer in the United States is at risk. If he does nothing, critics scream that he's milking customers, bilking partners, and de-empowering competitors, while the Times trots out the hegemony theory. If he adds something, Joel Klein puts on his Superman outfit (I know he's no longer Antitrust Boy, but he can't escape his glory days), Netscape slaps on a double-thick diaper and races to court to file suit, and the Times intones that the Hegemony Watch is on. Meanwhile, back on Planet Earth, life goes on.
The Microsoft Haters Club's latest maneuvers have been set off by the surfacing last week of an internal memo written by Gates to all full-time Microsoft employees outlining his vision for what he calls "trustworthy computing," a notion that encompasses better security, better quality, more focus on getting things right the first time, and other highly significant issues (for the full text of the memo, check out informationweek.com/872/gates.htm). And what I think has been hilarious is the outpouring of invective and bile over Gates' comments: He's trying to kiss up to the Justice Department; he's trying to freeze the market; he's hypnotizing customers so he can bamboozle them yet again; he's trying to stop his Joel Klein nightmares; he's fluoridating our water supplies, etc.
But is it not conceivable, even to the frothing Microsoft and Gates haters, that at least some of what Gates is calling for are qualities that will, if delivered, offer greater value to customers and thereby generate greater value for Microsoft? That sort of win-win dynamic certainly comes in handy here in the real world among the thousands of businesses trying to use technology--including Microsoft's--as a strategic asset to get closer to their customers.
Let's look at some of what Gates said:
"What I mean by this is that customers will always be able to rely on these systems to be available and to secure their information. Trustworthy Computing is computing that is as available, reliable, and secure as electricity, water services, and telephony." Sounds great--but the real issue is, of course, can Microsoft back up the talk? The company in the past has made some huge promises and, more than once, it has failed to live up to them, particularly with enterprise customers. So is this the sort of message that will resonate with those customers: "Our new design approaches need to dramatically reduce the number of such [security problems] that come up in the software that Microsoft, its partners, and its customers create. We need to make it automatic for customers to get the benefits of these fixes." And then he makes the promises--commitments--that appear at the top of this column, and that will be closely monitored by customers, partners, InformationWeek, and others.
In the above passages, Gates puts himself and Microsoft's products, behavior, and reputation on the line; he'll be judged by his ability to deliver. If that's a prescription for being a bully and a phony, then I say this industry needs more bullies and phonies.