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Microsoft struggles to realize vision in face of Windows 8 and Xbox One consumer dissent

Microsoft was almost Apple.  And then they screwed up.

The ground is shrinking under an increasingly disoriented Microsoft as the tech giant attempts to wrestle with widespread consumer dissent--a dissent that seems to align itself against Microsoft’s vision for gaming and computing.  Not only did its so-called ‘innovative’ flagship operating-system Windows 8 release to widespread criticism, but several restrictions placed on its recently unveiled Xbox One had MS scrambling as it attempted to avert a public relations catastrophe. 
As painful as it has been to watch this from the sidelines, I cannot begin to imagine how the Microsoft executives are feeling.  But I’m sure they’ll be alright.

Being beaten by wave after wave of criticism and seeing Sony’s PlayStation 4 being named the early victor of the next generation, along with a troubling 14-percent drop in PC sales, Microsoft was forced to spontaneously react and make pivotal decisions.  At first glance it, seemed that Microsoft’s executives were going to take the hardline and defend their products, their vision, no matter the cost:

“Fortunately we have a product for people who aren’t able to get some form of connectivity,” said Microsoft’s chief of interactive entertainment Don Mattrick in an interview at this year’s Electronic Entertainment Expo.  “It’s called Xbox 360.”

Ouch.  It’s hard to tell whether consumers or Microsoft hurt more from that statement.  Likely the latter, considering the excellent alternative Xbox gamers have.  Nevertheless, it is telling that a MS exec was willing to make a statement implying sticking with an older machine over upgrading.

This idealistic narrative within Microsoft’s management was witnessed when criticism was mounting against Windows 8, as well.

"The Start screen is not just a replacement for the Start menu--it is designed to be a great launcher and switcher of apps, a place that is alive with notifications, customizable, powerful, and efficient. It brings together a set of solutions that today are disparate and poorly integrated," said group program manager for the Core Experience Evolved team Alice Steinglass. 

This was the company’s initial reaction to the criticism, and one MS exec took it a step further:

"We've seen some small amount of visceral feedback focused on 'choice' or 'disable'--a natural reaction to change, but perhaps not the best way to have a dialogue leading to a new product," Windows Live President Steven Sinofsky said.

Although Microsoft will never admit it, this type of idealistic view of computing that gives little credence, initially at least, to critical feedback is found most notably in the tech giant’s largest competitor: Apple.  Famously known for telling consumers what they want “before they want it”, Apple has oftentimes paddled against a sea of criticism and emerged victorious.  

But this emulation did not last for long, with Microsoft undergoing two massive admissions of failure within the span of a couple of months with the release of Windows Blue (or Windows 8.1), and the reversal of the Xbox One’s two primary game-sharing policies.  

With Windows, the changes made were understandable and necessary.  When it comes to computing, your idea either works in application, or it doesn’t.  Microsoft’s didn’t.  Windows 8 may have worked wonderfully on mobile and tablet platforms with touch screens, but the concept didn’t pan out nearly as well when applied to a desktop computer with keyboard and mouse.  Every company, if it hopes to survive, must look critics in the eye on occasion and admit that it made a mistake--even Microsoft and Apple.

But the removal of the Xbox One’s digital rights management (DRM) restrictions and 24-hour online verification does not have as clearly beneficial implications.  Although this is what the consumer base demanded, I’m not convinced that any of us really grasped why these restrictions should exist in the first place, and how they would benefit gamers.

After reading a post made by an unnamed Microsoft engineer, not posting on his company’s behalf, I think I have a pretty clear understanding of what MS hoped to achieve, and why it was actually pretty brilliant.

“The whole point of the DRM switch from disc-based to cloud-based is to kill disc swapping, scratched discs, ringing discs to a friend’s house, trade-ins for [little] value with nothing going back to developers, and high game costs,” the engineer said.  “If you want games cheaper than 59.99, you have to limit used games somehow.”

The engineer continued to discuss the MS’s long-term plan was to introduced a Steam-like games library to consoles.

“GameStop, Walmart, Target, [and] Amazon are kind of entrenched in the industry.  They have a lot of power, and the shift has to be gradual.  Long-term goal is Steam for consoles [...]  We’re trying to move the industry forward towards digital distribution,” he added.

This does not sound like the end of the world.  Actually, it sounds superb.  Potentially lower game prices?  Sweet!  Had Microsoft been more straightforward with consumers and discussed the future implications of their plans, if they had made the “Steam on consoles” comparison, it’s possible that the uproar wouldn’t have been so devastating and that they wouldn’t have been forced to seriously consider backtracking on their own ideas.  

I wouldn’t want to be in Microsoft’s shoes right now.  While their decisions to make changes to Windows 8 and remove restrictions on the One has been heralded as a thrilling company turnaround and has given both platforms a chance to compete, it has come at the cost of Microsoft’s vision.  MS may have had their Apple moment.  The moment when they had an idea that consumers didn’t know they wanted yet, but that they would have loved.

They blew it.

Steven Chaffin, Jr. is an American writer and founder of The Editor's Desk.  He is the U.S. Editor for PlayStation Universe, and a fitness freelance writer for For more from Steven, follow him on Twitter @steven_chaffin.