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Microsoft Owes its Stockholders a Refund!

When Bill Gates said Microsoft had spent between $8 billion and $9 billion to develop Windows Vista and Office 2007, my mind clouded briefly before I stared at the screen in disbelief. Consider how often it took Apple two years or more to accumulate that much money, and you’ll get the picture. Even now, thousands and thousands of Microsoft developers are toiling in their code mines struggling to move this wasteful venture to the starting gate.

As you recall, Gates says there’s an 80% chance Vista will be released to consumers in January 2007, as if PC box vendors could care, once the holiday season has passed. Or maybe they hope that those Zune media players will somehow compensate for the lost sales.

But the larger problem here is that Microsoft comes across as a directionless company, a firm that has been singularly unable to succeed beyond its core business of operating systems and office suites. Of course, that was enough to allow it to dominate the PC industry. Apple, despite getting so many things right, still remains an afterthought to many businesses.

At the same time, Vista seems, to some, near as bad as Apple’s abortive Copland project of a decade ago, where they spent hundreds of millions to build an industrial-strength operating system in-house, as it were. While Apple had the good sense to give it all up and look elsewhere for relief, Microsoft will simply throw more money and more developers into the project, hoping that enough cooks will make the stew taste good.

If you’ve read some reviews about Vista betas, you’ll see what I mean. Yes, it’s real enough, but it’s extremely rough even at this late stage and has a number of questionable user interface quirks, such as the excessive number of pop-up windows that appear when you attempt to do something that excites its security protection technology.

In the end, of course, Vista will appear, and it may even work fairly well. Microsoft has largely succeeded on delivering products that are good enough to get the job done, even if they suffer from bad design decisions and various and sundry bouts of unreality and massive security leaks. I don’t expect Vista to be much different, though I would hope the security protections will be enhanced, as long promised.

But to look at Microsoft’s larger problem, let’s examine the little things, such as their recently-introduced wireless keyboard and mouse combination for the Mac. Essentially they took an existing product, the Wireless Laser Desktop 6000, changed a few keytops to better support Mac capabilities and added Universal drivers to support both PowerPC and Intel-based Macs. Period!

Not that it’s a bad product. Again, we have the good enough factor here, and I actually gave it a pretty good review a few weeks ago. Forget, for the moment, the drab dark gray and silver color scheme inherited from the Windows version of the product. Typical of Microsoft, it has some annoying quirks that only appeared after using it for a while. Take the laser mouse, which tracks well and performs relatively smoothly. Except that it also has a nasty habit of freezing every so often.

After doing a little testing, I found it wasn’t the drivers, but the mouse itself that lost its ability to connect to the wireless receiver. To reactivate the unit, I merely had to remove the batteries for a few seconds and reinsert them.

Sure, you may ask, why not return or exchange the mouse? Well, I did just that, and the replacement had the very same quirk. I even got ahold of a standalone Wireless Laser Mouse 6000, which is identical in both Mac and Windows versions. Guess what? The identical problem.

Microsoft’s PR people promised to have answers and they haven’t produced any. Moving the receiver to different USB ports, even the ones at the rear of my monitor, failed to help. Finally, I retrieved my all-time favorite pointing device, the Logitech MX1000 Laser Cordless Mouse, installed the software and it has functioned flawlessly. It never misses a beat, except for one of the rubber feet that fell off apparently during my last move. A set of replacement feet is coming, however.

Now here’s the peculiar part, as if any story about Microsoft isn’t peculiar. There are separate drivers for the keyboard, which I opted to continue to use, and the mouse. But if you uninstall the latter, the custom keys at the left of the keyboard, which activate your chat, email, music, photo and Web applications, stop working. I’m serious. Reinstalling the mouse software also restored these functions. Now that’s just sloppy programming, and when you wrap your head around such nonsense, you can begin to contemplate the mindset of a company that wastes billions on an operating system upgrade that it can’t deliver on time.

I think Microsoft’s stockholders are owed an apology, a refund, and some new executives who know how to properly manage product development.