Microsoft misjudges customer loyalty with kill-XP plea

Expert questions Microsoft's strategic sense, calls XP upgrades a shakedown worthy of the 'Sopranos'

Microsoft grossly overestimated the loyalty of those it thought were its most steadfast customers when it asked for their help in getting friends and family members to dump Windows XP, a corporate communications expert said Friday.

"There's nothing wrong with asking your customers for help," said Gene Grabowski, an executive vice president at Levick, a Washington, D.C. firm that specializes in crisis public relations and corporate reputation messaging. "But you have to establish loyalty before you ask them, and even then you have to structure [the request] so there is a distinct advantage to the customer."

Microsoft neither had the customer loyalty it had assumed it had, nor a plan that made the effort attractive to those it asked for assistance. "Essentially, Microsoft was asking its customers to help it sell more product," said Grabowski.

Grabowski was referring to the appeal Microsoft made Feb. 7, when it implored its technically astute customers to help others who are still running Windows XP get rid of the soon-to-be-retired operating system.

Those same savvy users ridiculed the idea, saying that Microsoft's pitch -- which relied on upgrading Windows XP to Windows 8.1 or purchasing a new computer -- was unacceptable because they refused to recommend Windows 8.1. They also criticized Microsoft for not offering a discount on an upgrade, for not suggesting the older but more familiar Windows 7 as an alternative to Windows 8.1, and for not providing an upgrade path from XP to 8.1 that retained settings, files or applications.

"The problem here is that Microsoft is behaving more like the 'Sopranos' than a technology company," Grabowski said. "They're shaking down their customers."

Grabowski was scathing in his evaluation of Microsoft's long-planned, long-stated decision to stop providing security updates for Windows XP after April 8. That deadline -- Microsoft will officially retire the OS from support, although it will still run long after April 8 -- has prompted the company to urge customers to either upgrade Windows or buy new hardware.

Once Microsoft stops patching vulnerabilities in XP, users will be in the crosshairs of cyber criminals, Microsoft and security professionals have said.

"Microsoft's warning its customers that if you don't upgrade, which you have to put sweat equity into -- not only do you have to pay, but you have to put in the time -- you're probably going to be hacked," Grabowski said. "They're asking customers to buy an upgrade or suffer the consequences. That's a shakedown to a lot of customers."

While some, including industry analysts, have argued that Microsoft is obligated to secure its customers no matter how old the OS, a larger number have made the point that Microsoft has supported XP far longer than usual, for nearly 13 years rather than the usual 10, and because it's barraged customers with warnings for years, isn't honor bound to continue supporting the aged operating system forever.

To some extent, the argument is moot either way, because many customers have the perception that they're being exploited, said Grabowski. And customers who feel that way are very unlikely to help Microsoft without a quid pro quo.

"It's starting to irk a lot of businesses, let alone home users, that Microsoft's asking them to dig into their pockets and learn a new OS," said Grabowski. "That frustrates those customers. Rather than get closer to its customers, Microsoft is alienating them."

Those miscalculations revealed that Microsoft had neither a clear idea of its customers' perspective nor a realistic strategy to reduce Windows XP's global footprint, Grabowski maintained.

According to statistics released Saturday by analytics company Net Applications, 29.5% of the world's personal computers ran XP in February.

Microsoft's countdown clock for the retirement of Windows XP (and Office 2003) shows there's just a month left before it pulls the patching plug.

"Microsoft should state the positives of upgrading from XP, but then do everything possible to make that easy," said Grabowski when asked what he would advise Microsoft to do if asked. He suggested deep discounts for upgrades to a newer version of Windows and a migration tool that retains data and settings when upgrading from XP as incentives.

Microsoft has hammered home points it believes are enticements for XP owners, regularly citing improved security, for example, and claiming that newer PCs are cheaper to operate. It stressed both in a recent news release ( download PDF) targeting small business owners.

And the company hinted last week that it will soon offer XP users a data migration tool. In a Feb. 25 comment on the blog where he made his original "help-us-help them" request, Brandon LeBlanc, a Microsoft marketing communications manager, said, "On the data migration point you bring up, stay tuned as I might have more to share on something that might make this easier and more like an upgrade."

LeBlanc was referring to XP-to-Windows 8.1 upgrades, which only let customers wipe the hard drive of a PC before installing Windows 8.1. No data, files, settings or applications are transferred; instead users must back up the XP PC's hard drive, then later transfer files, re-enable settings and reinstall applications.

"That might be a good short-term move," said Grabowski. Even so, the fact that Microsoft only now decided to offer such a tool was proof that it had no plan to get people off XP. "That sends a bad message to their customers," Grabowski added.

He returned to the loyalty theme, again asserting that the root of Microsoft's problem was that it had done little to make its customers loyal enough to call on them for help. "Harley-Davidson is a great example of a company with very loyal customers," Grabowski said. "They tattoo the logo on their arms. Harley-Davidson could ask them for help. But Microsoft has a long way to go to match that kind of loyalty."

Microsoft has not changed its approach, even after the rebuff from customers. In a long piece posted to the company's Fire Hose blog and on a website that touted XP-to-Windows 8.1 upgrades and new hardware, and included a countdown clock to XP's retirement, Microsoft continued to promote the notion that people still running Windows XP should buy a new device or upgrade to Windows 8.1.

"It is important that customers move to a supported operating system and productivity suite, like Windows 8 and Office 365, so they can receive regular security updates to help protect their computer from malicious attacks," said Jay Paulus, director of Windows marketing, in the Fire Hose blog last Wednesday. "The best way to ensure that you are keeping your personal data safe is to upgrade to a modern Windows PC or tablet."

"That's like GM saying it's not going to service your five-year-old car, so you have to buy a new one," said Grabowski.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed. His email address is gkeizer@computerworld.com.

See more by Gregg Keizer on Computerworld.com.

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