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The Microsoft Death Watch: They Can’t Do Anything Right!

Microsoft should have been basking in glory this fall. Windows 7, designed to fix all or most of the ills of Vista, has received lots of raves even before its debut. And that’s forgetting the possibility, a strong one in my opinion, that some of those stories exhibiting over-the-top enthusiasm were bought and paid for by Microsoft.

Regardless, all those reviews and those new ad spots showing how warm and fuzzy Windows 7 is for six-year-olds, should have been sufficient to guarantee a huge and positive reception for the new operating system. That is, until the bottom fell out, resulting from a totally unexpected catastrophe.

You see, the Sidekick failure clearly demonstrates that something is seriously wrong with Microsoft. Despite the fact that the Sidekick depends fully on the cloud for managing your contacts, photos and other stuff, they evidently didn’t keep their part of the bargain to provide competent support when they spent some $500 million to acquire that company’s inventor, Danger.

More and more reports are coming to light that key personnel from Danger have either left the company, or been redeployed to another department, such as Microsoft’s nascent Pink mobile phone project. Support staff has been severely reduced. To add insult to injury, former Danger CEO Andy Rubin actually left Microsoft to become lead developer for Google’s Android platform. If you can’t keep the key executives of a company on board, how will the newly-minted Microsoft employees left behind feel about the situation?

Now gutting Danger’s infrastructure support staff may seem sensible from the standpoint of corporate bean counters who haven’t a clue about what’s necessary to manage a complicated server network with the appropriate level of redundancy, but it comes across as a “customer be damned” decision.

Meanwhile, I expect lots of Sidekick owners will be dropping that accursed smartphone like a hot potato. Indeed, T-Mobile has reportedly halted sales of the Sidekick, which is small consolation for the million-plus customers who found themselves betrayed by this server failure. What’s more, there are already reports that customers are being allowed to dump their contracts and transition to a different smartphone platform.

Now amid the apologies, Microsoft won’t be able to make the excuse that they had no responsibility for Danger’s products and services, since they did acquire the company and its obligations. This massive failure raises some serious questions about the efficacy of Microsoft’s cloud-based initiatives.

You see, in trying to compete with Google, Microsoft is making Office available in the  cloud, joining their existing services that include email and calendaring. That’s all well and good if the system works, but the Sidekick fiasco casts serious doubt on such initiatives. Why should you entrust your stuff to an outfit that doesn’t care about you?

Now I realize that some of you might attribute the Sidekick disaster as more an indictment of cloud-based computing than the failure of any individual company. I suppose there’s merit in that point of view, since the technology is all quite new and the entire concept of cloud-based computing remains a work in progress, punctuated by occasional failures from other companies including Microsoft’s arch rival, Google.

At the same time, you can be sure that Amazon, Apple, Google and other companies with similar online services are busy shoring up their networks and doing what they can to reduce outages and make sure that nobody will ever lose a single file. That will take time, and I expect in a few years, such outages will be mostly history.

At the same time, the system will only function if the company behind the network cares about its customer and ensures the system is not just reliable, but has an adequate and well-trained staff on hand to keep the servers running and appropriately updated. Cutting personnel to save a few million dollars may make sense from the standpoint of your bottom line, but it doesn’t help if that reduces reliability, particularly when the inevitable failures do occur.

It’s a sure thing that the people who embraced the Sidekick may even now be kicking themselves for not abandoning the product when Microsoft took over. Worse, T-Mobile, despite a great reputation as a wireless carrier, is bound to lose customers and some of that hard-won reputation over this debacle.

Now for those of you who feel that Microsoft should be given a pass, let me ask you: How can you possibly rely on a company that charges excessive prices for its products, but doesn’t provide the reliability and security that you need? How can you depend on a company whose management, in the person of CEO Steve Ballmer, can’t utter a single sentence without coming across as unstable? How can you believe a company that simply can’t tell the truth, something that’s been demonstrated over and over again all these years?

In recent columns, I’ve suggested that Microsoft’s stockholders should be demanding a refund. That’s true for customers as well — and an avalanche of such demands may be the only way to demonstrate to Microsoft that they need to change their ways.