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THE TECHWEB SPIN: Poor Microsoft


Microsoft just can't win.

Okay, so they win in most ways that matter (especially on their balance sheets), but one of the best known and most powerful technology companies in the world is practically helpless when it comes to fending off customer criticism and managing public opinion. In short, Microsoft is something like the Rodney Dangerfield of IT. It gets no respect because it just can't seem to get anything right. Microsoft is IT's favorite whipping boy.

The latest example is Windows XP Service Pack 2. The company delayed releasing the product at least twice, publicly. The security-focused service pack was a long-time coming, and Microsoft risked another MSBlaster-like egg-on-its-face disaster to make sure it had gotten the kinks out.

As a result, it took criticism from several quarters during the third and fourth quarters last year for not having a security-patch-roll-up in place for XP. There was a lot of grumbling about how long it took at that time to install Windows XP then install Service Pack 1, then install about 79 additional critical updates. Even though many corporations didn't have to jump through so many hoops, and smarter IT shops had created easier ways for themselves, a roll-up was needed as much as a year ago.

But Microsoft, with its new-found emphasis on software quality, decided it was better to take its time and get things right than to deliver this update too early. But of course, when Service Pack 2 came out, Microsoft's plan to automatically push down the new bits via its Automatic Updates functionality so alienated its primary IT customers that it had to pull back on that plan. Even the roll-out to Windows XP Home Edition computers is going slowly, possibly because many corporations use that less expensive version of Windows.

Then there was the you-broke-my-applications backlash. And it's true: Windows XP Service Pack 2 does change the way Windows works with applications, for security reasons. And Microsoft has been pretty explicit about this--both in advance of release and since. As a result, many IT departments have not cleared the installation of SP2 and are holding off.

The latest criticism, though, results from the practice of firing security-flaw pot-shots at the same code we criticized Microsoft for taking so long to deliver. Desktop Pipeline posted a good summary of the flack surrounding XP SP2 late last week.

Bottom line: Both the industry and the press have so tarnished Windows XP Service Pack 2 in the couple of weeks since it's been out that it'll be a wonder if most consumer users of XP--the true target audience of the service pack--will ever install it. And if you look at it that way, I'm among those who helped do that, since I recommended on August 7, the day after the code froze, that no one install Service Pack 2 for at least 30 days.

What's Right and Wrong?
So am I writing this tongue-in-cheek, or is the market guilty of never being satisfied? A little of both. The market is clearly never going to be satisfied--especially after Microsoft used up all its corporate good will aiding and abetting the fall from power (or outright demise) of companies like Netscape, Novell, WordPerfect, and many others.

But here's the more interesting question: Is Microsoft truly in the wrong about how it handled this? The whole Automatic Updates thing was always out to lunch. Microsoft, in its zeal to install a basic software firewall on as many consumer desktops as possible as quickly as possible, once again crossed the line. In an effort to do the right thing, it has self-righteously treaded on some of its customers. These two facts don't co-exist well: SP2 kills enterprise apps and SP2 installs itself automatically. I mean, doh! What were they thinking? What's worse is that right up until the day the code was released, the marketing folks were sending out the message: Just turn on Automatic Updates! Long and short: Microsoft wound up releasing SP2 blocking tools to corporations.

But despite recent criticisms from many sources about new security issues with SP2, Microsoft really has done its best to deliver a sound, major service pack update of its XP desktop operating system. Are most desktop PCs--especially those that aren't fully protected by firewall and antivirus security measures--better off after receiving SP2? Completely. Absolutely. No question. Yes!

So what's the big deal? It's not like Microsoft won't have to patch this patch. We didn't think it was going to be perfect, did we?

I feel a little silly defending Microsoft. But every once in a while, someone has to do it. Because they're just so good at shooting themselves in the foot.

Scot Finnie is editor of the TechWeb Network's Pipeline collection of Web sites.

TechWeb's editors are busy assigning and editing and linking and otherwise creating the content you see on TechWeb.com and the Pipeline sites, but we wanted the chance to tell you what we see and what we think about it directly. So, each week, The TechWeb Spin will bring you the informed insight and unique perspective of a different TechWeb editor: Fredric Paul, Scot Finnie, Tim Moran, Stuart Glascock, and Mitch Wagner. We hope you like it, and even if you don't we hope you take the time to tell us what you think about it.

Check out The TechWeb Spin Archive.


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