Mary Jo Foley talks to Microsofties about their company’s future

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Mary Jo FoleyA few months back, I wrote a post about post-Gates Microsoft – highlighting an interview that Mary Jo Foley had given on Paul Thurrott’s Windows Weekly podcast. I’ve since bought a copy of Mary Jo’s book (Microsoft 2.0: How Microsoft Plans to Stay Relevant in the Post-gates Era) and was lucky enough to be invited to Microsoft’s UK campus today to join in a session as Microsoft staff asked Mary Jo about her experiences of writing about Microsoft and where she sees the company heading under its new leadership.

Mary Jo started out by talking about how she got into covering Microsoft when, after graduating in the early-1980s with a journalism degree, she was covering the minicomputer and mainframe manufacturers for “Electronic Business” magazine. After getting bored of capacitors and resistors (who wouldn’t?), she asked her editor if she could write about software (then seen as a passing fad), called up Pam Edstrom and asked to meet Bill Gates. After being granted an interview with Bill (which went badly and was interrupted by none-other than Steve Jobs!), she built on this somewhat precarious start of covering Microsoft at various points in the company’s history to the point where, in 2001 she started the Microsoft Watch blog and newsletter, which went on to become the number one RSS feed for Ziff Davis. In 2006, Mary Jo handed over Microsoft Watch and moved to her current blog at ZDNet.

Picking up on the fact that Mary Jo says in the book that Microsoft bought Yahoo!, she explains that this is a typo – a few hours after the manuscript was finished (on 31 January 2008), the proposed Microsoft-Yahoo! merger was all over the news and she had just one week to redraft the entire book. Either way, Mary-Jo questions the wisdom of such a merger (what’s in in for Microsoft? Yahoo!’s search business, the portal – Flickr perhaps – but that’s a lot of money) and considers that the final outcome was the right one.

When asked what Microsoft’s biggest mistake in recent history has been, Mary Jo cites the US antitrust ruling from the mid-1990s. She believes that Microsoft may have been guilty (unlike in the EU case, which is sour grapes on the part of competitors – a view that I share) and that Microsoft could have saved itself from a lot of animosity and legal cost by coming clean.

As for where next for the Redmond giant, Mary Jo explains that software plus services in not just software as a service warmed over but concedes that Microsoft has done a bad job of explaining the differences whilst the competition is finally realising that an offline component is required in their cloud computing model – the real question is whether Microsoft manages to make clear it’s cloud computing strategy at the Professional Developer’s Conference (PDC) in Los Angeles next week.

Should Microsoft have been split up as a result of the antitrust rulings? Well, Microsoft were against this sanction at the the time, but Mary-Jo Foley believes that, with hindsight, the separation of Windows and Office would have made the company more agile, rather than to weaken it. As for the prospect of a new administration in Washington D.C. re-opening that particular can of worms, Mary Jo believes that, regardless of who takes over in the White House, if the Yahoo!-Google advertising deal is blocked by Microsoft, then Google will retaliate – possibly around Microsoft’s integration of Windows with Live services.

When asked how her level of access to Microsoft has changed over the last 20 years, Mary Jo notes that, whilst her access to top executives has dropped (inevitable in a fast-growing company with growing numbers of journalists asking for access), she enjoys a different relationship with each of the various Microsoft teams (not all of them positive). Indeed, whilst Microsoft says there are no blacklists for press contact, the company is run by humans and blocking access is human nature. One executive is said to have commented that Mary Jo Foley will talk to his team over his dead body. She didn’t elaborate on who said this (at least not in public) but she did say that she got to speak to the team in question and the executive is very much alive and well today!

Many Microsoft employees at today’s session were interested to hear Mary Jo’s view on the marketing of Windows Vista. She answered with a statement – when asked which team she would most like to work with at Microsoft, she says that she would least like to work with the Vista team and that they have messed in in many ways – both in product development and marketing. Even so, Mary Jo Foley believes that, with Windows Vista service pack 1 and the I’m a PC campaign, Microsoft is coming clean on the failings of Vista but it’s too late to undo the damage caused by public perception of the product so the best thing they can do is get Windows 7 out of the door. As for her view on the relative merits of the Apple Mac vs. PC ads and Microsoft’s efforts, she skirted around the Apple ads (other than describing them as aggressive and clever) but confessed to being very anti-Apple and commented that Apple users put up with a lot, adding that:

“If Microsoft did [the same as Apple], Microsoft would be skewered.”

[Mary Jo Foley, Microsoft UK Campus, 22 October 2008]

Mary Jo went on to comment that she likes the I’m a PC campaign with its clear messaging but thought the Seinfeld ads were horrible – and, whilst she is one of a small minority that likes the Mojave concept, she sees the effect of the negative campaigning by the press and Microsoft’s competition every time she writes something favourable about Vista. She also commented that many comments on her blog appear to be competitors and enthusiasts for other platforms “stirring the pot” as they see Vista as Microsoft’s weakness but that when asked for real-world examples of broken applications, no-one has come back with anything for her to write about. Meanwhile, Mary Jo commented that, as much as she likes Steve Ballmer, he does the company no favours when he suggests skipping Vista (although, in fairness, according to he actually said “if people want to wait they really can” before continuing with “but I’d definitely deploy Vista”).

As for how to make Windows 7 a success? Mary Jo commented that the Windows team is one of those inside Microsoft that do not like her but that they do not want to make the same mistakes with Windows 7 that they did with Vista – i.e. talking too early about features that didn’t make it. Unfortunately, customers and partners know very little about Windows 7 right now (at least until the PDC preview is released) and that Microsoft really needs to be up-front with them: Windows 7 is “done” (in fact, on her blog today, Mary Jo suggests it could even ship earlyLong Zheng cites ninjas at Microsoft as his source!) and any new features suggested at this stage are unlikely to make it into the product (maybe into Windows 8 or 9 – who knows?) but that, if Microsoft is not clear about this, the end result will be a lot of disgruntled power users (is this sounding familiar?).

With Bill Gates now retired from full-time work at Microsoft, the conversation turned to Ray Ozzie – who seems to have been pretty much shielded from the press since taking over as Microsoft’s Chief Software Architect. Mary Jo commented that she has not been allowed to interview Ozzie yet (although that may change soon) but that he seems to be reluctant to be in the spotlight and prefers to take a hands-on role. So, who is the new face of Microsoft? Steve Ballmer is certainly visible as CEO but when Ray Ozzie, or Craig Mundie are mentioned, the response is generally something like “who?” (Mundie is Microsoft’s Chief Research and Strategy Officer). For the time being, love him or hate him, Steve Ballmer is the face of Microsoft 2.0 – but there seems to be no obvious successor for Microsoft 3.0 (or even 2.1).

Will software plus services change Ozzie’s profile? Maybe – Mary Jo certainly hopes that he will become more visible, answering questions and setting the tone but she says she’s not optimistic, asking if it’s possible to change the character of a person who one can feel does not want to be in the limelight.

Moving back to Apple for a moment – one ‘softie asked if, in the light of Apple’s “triumph of form over function”, Microsoft should change its pitch? On this, Mary Jo Foley said that Microsoft faces a dichotomy – the enterprise has been it’s focus and the basis of the company’s success to date but it seems to be trying to reinvent itself in the consumer space, with money pouring into Windows Live, Zune, Xbox, etc. As it increases its presence in consumer markets, Microsoft has to be careful to ensure that successful products like SharePoint do not fall by the wayside. As for Microsoft’s move into services, Mary Jo said that she doesn’t receive any proactive engagement from Microsoft’s services organisation (she covers a different audience) but that she hears a lot from partners who see Microsoft “eating their lunch”, especially in the managed service arena (e.g. with the launch of Microsoft Online Services). As Mary Jo Foley finds that partners make up a large percentage of her blog’s readership – often knowing more about what is happening in the market than Microsoft employees or customers – it seems clear that there is a fine line to be walked as Microsoft finds its place under changing market conditions.

As a blogger myself (one without any professional journalism credentials) I found Mary Jo Foley’s views on blogging (cf. journalism) particularly interesting. First of all – where is the line between journalism and blogging? Interestingly, Mary Jo does not see a professional distinction but sees blogging as the opinion side of reporting (complete with bias) with unbiased journalistic integrity as a counterbalance. Her employer, ZDNet, is a blogging network with journalists, vendors and amateurs writing for them. Sometimes readers are confused but Mary Jo contests that if something appears on a blog it should be considered as opinion – indeed she will even feature guest posts on her blog to provide a rebuttal. As for why she crossed the divide? Mary Jo answers by saying that “I’ve never believed that journalists are unbiased”.

Will blogging kill real journalism? Mary Jo feels that sometimes opinion attracts more interest than the real story but she certainly hopes this will not be at the expense of true journalism Рfew bloggers have the budget to follow a story for months at a time and provide an expos̩, whilst newspapers and magazines are recognising blogs as an additional channel and responding with commentary based on a mixture of opinion and fact.

I asked a follow-up question about those journalists who can sometimes appear disparaging of bloggers (with one particular name in mind but not spoken) and Mary Jo commented that amateur bloggers are more interesting as a group and tend to have their fingers on the pulse whereas professional journalists are somewhat removed. As examples she quoted Windows Connected and I Started Something as carrying more weight than, for example, the New York Times or Washington Post ( still has a way to go before it reaches that league!). As for which blogs Mary Jo reads – all of the TechNet and MSDN blogs (skimming by author and headline) but particularly those in the UK, where ‘softies seem more willing to share opinion instead of regurgitating press releases (of course, given the audience, in a lecture theatre on Microsoft’s UK campus, that was certainly the right thing to say!).

When asked (by a prominent, and often outspoken, Microsoft blogger) how she deals with negative comments and if she ever feels like turning her back on blogging, Mary Jo said that:

“I only read my comments when I’m in a good mood”

[Mary Jo Foley, Microsoft UK Campus, 22 October 2008]

She then joked that the ZDNet moderators have asked her if she really wanted to say something when responding after a drink or few (Google Goggles only work on e-mail) before continuing to comment that she does receive some disparagement for being a woman commentating on technology (amazing in this day and age) but that mostly she has fun – interviewing great people and saying more or less what she would like on her blog, without censorship.

As for whether the growth in blogging helps to improve the public perception of Microsoft, Mary Jo believes it has helped a lot – Microsoft has more official bloggers than many corporations and they show a lot of self-restraint, with no obvious information leaks between Microsoft’s internal briefings (e.g. TechReady) and the upcoming PDC.

So what about Google – surely they are an increasing threat to Microsoft’s desktop and information worker business? Mary Jo agrees with Steve Ballmer’s inference that Google Apps are overrated (as a Google Apps user – I agree – they’re great for a small business like mine but do not represent a serious threat for the enterprise market). People want a credible challenger to Microsoft though, says Ms. Foley, and whilst Google is dominant in some places, Google Apps is not one of them – it’s a response to the price of Microsoft Office, rather than to a latent demand for an online word processor or spreadsheet.

But is Mary Jo still using Google Chrome? Yes (ditto).

As for Microsoft’s push into the virtualisation space – when asked how Microsoft is doing and what the impact will be on VMware and others, Mary Jo cited the IDC report that shows Microsoft taking a 23% market share as scary and amazing (I agree – even as a virtualisation MVP, I find the figures pretty incredible although Mike DiPetrillo’s vehement dismissal of them also tells me that VMware see Microsoft as a bigger threat than they are prepared to admit – presents both sides of the story). Mary Jo continued by commenting that VMware’s decision to place ex-Microsoft number 3, Paul Maritz as CEO was “brilliant” and continued by saying that he is a “very smart guy” (Valleywag uses typically colourful prose when Owen Thomas writes of Maritz “Ignore his cuddly-programmer looks; he is fearsome, and deservedly hated by enemies.”).

Onto a lighter topic – when asked what she thought the “coolest” Windows application of the year was, Mary Jo didn’t consider herself to be a good judge – saying that she is not a power user or a developer; however she does see more interest in the browser-based applications that are coming to market.

I had the honour of presenting the final question to Mary Jo, asking her whether she agrees that Microsoft should split Windows into separate consumer and business products (an opinion promoted by at least one other Microsoft-focused journalist – Paul Thurrott – but which I feel could signal a return to the bad old days of businesses deploying cheap consumer-grade operating systems, like Windows 9x, in place of quality secure operating systems like NT). On this, it seems Ms. Foley and I disagree – she can see the sense in separate SKUs and features for home and work (for example, do businesses really need multi-touch?), whereas I can see that not all businesses want all of Windows’ many features but many businesses would like to use some slightly different functionality (how about a role-based deployment model, like the one used by Windows Server?).

Even if we don’t agree on this particular issue, I found it interesting how, even though I haven’t been one of Mary Jo’s subscribers to date, on the whole my opinions as an amatuer blogger who sees a lot of what Microsoft is up to (as a partner, customer, and unofficial evangelist) correlate with those of a professional journalist who has been watching Microsoft for 25 years. That’s not meant to sound conceited – it just means that I can take some solace that I’m generally not too far off the mark.

I don’t have a full transcript of the session but these notes record most of the questions and answers (not the exact words – some of the commentary is mine). For me, it was a fascinating discussion on many levels: how Microsofties (in the UK subsidiary) view their company from the inside; how Mary Jo (as a journalist covering Microsoft) sees the company from the outside; and how others (who interact with Mary Jo through her blogs and magazine articles) feed back on the Microsoft products and technologies.

I’m extremely grateful to those within Microsoft’s UK organisation who invited me to the session today – and look forward to Mary Jo Foley’s views on Microsoft over the coming months and years. It’s clear that her position as a prominent Microsoft commentator gives her some unique insight and perspective into the workings of the world’s largest software company – and even those who work there are interested in hearing it.

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