On the difficulty of Technical Evangelism

It was time for my daily dose of Robert Scoble, and once again he providing some thought provoking fodder for me to go on about. Last week I mentioned just how boring I thought Gates’ keynote was at CES: full of empty hyperbole, long on announcing partnerships, short on announcing actual products that one could go out and buy. This is in more or less direct contrast with Apple, who chooses not to announce new products months in advance, and rather just announce products that you could order that very day from the online Apple Store.

But today Scoble was mentioning his job title: technical evangelist, and how he was a teeny bit uncomfortable with it because of its religious connotations. He had also just read this post by legendary Apple evangelist Guy Kawasaki, and found that he didn’t much agree with Guy.

In some ways, I’m not surprised. If we look at the upcoming list of products coming from Apple Microsoft, there isn’t much for the average-Joe consumer to be excited about. What’s most visible about Vista is they are apparently working very hard to make Vista as pretty as possible, and to match it Apple’s OS X feature for feature, so that they won’t look bad by comparison. But while Apple is hard at work creating useful applications like iMovie, iDVD and iWeb and selling them to consumers for ridiculously low prices (and indeed, giving them away when you buy a new Apple), Microsoft seems to be playing catchup. I can’t say that I’ve read of a single feature of Microsoft Vista that would compel me to spend my money to upgrade. That simply isn’t true of Apple products: just the new Podcast Studio features of GarageBand would make me cough up $79 for the iLife upgrade.

Kawaski in many ways had a much easier job than Scoble: the Macintosh was designed as a cause. It was radical. It required people to begin to “think different”. It made promises which resonated with people (and even managed to keep a few of them). And, perhaps most notably: they were the underdogs. When you are the underdog, you have to look for your opportunities wherever you may find them, and exploit them for all they are worth.

Scoble works for a vast corporate empire. You can’t even think of it as a single company. When Roz Ho gets up and says that Microsoft is 100% behind supporting the new Intel based Macs, you know that there are several groups at Microsoft who are sweating the very real possibility that the Mac Business group may be hastening the downfall of their own operating system division. (Incidently Microsoft, could you find a spokesperson with any less charisma or panache than Roz Ho? Dear Lord, I actually walked out of our screening room to get coffee to avoid her whiney, weasely, MBA speak.)

Like most big entities, Microsoft has lost sight of one thing: the consumer. When you buy a PC equipped with Windows XP, you can use it to browse, and maybe listen to some CDs, or maybe watch some DVDs. And that’s really pretty much it. When you buy a Macintosh, you get OS X and iLife, and can do a lot more. It’s easy to evangelize that, because it’s a great product.

Consider a product that I own: an HP Media Center PC. It will nicely record my shows and play them back. It’s not quite as nice as a TiVo, but I must admit, it’s pretty close. Recently I got both a Video iPod and a Sony PSP. I’d like to be able to convert my ripped shows to formats that I can store on these devices. But Microsoft stores these files in some kind of bizarre .dvr-ms wrapper file that nobody else seems to know about. Microsoft seems unwilling or unable to add the functionality themselves, and because they chose to use unstandard formats, I have to wait for some third party company to figure this stuff out and make third party add-ons, none of which are as convenient as if the functionality was simply built in from the start. Meanwhile, Apple just as an afterthought tossed the functionality to convert videos from Quicktime to proper Video iPod formats just as a small bullet item on their dot release of iTunes. Microsoft probably is still having hoards of corporate lawyers figuring out which of their media partners they are going to offend.
Scoble says that he’d rather let his customers figure out if Microsoft products are right for them. I think the question he should be asking himself is: why are so many people interested in products which aren’t made by Microsoft? Can we draw any lessons from what we see happening in the market? Why should a consumer prefer Vista to OS X or Linux?

In addition, from the developer’s standpoint, things aren’t that much better. I tell you what, surf on over to the Microsoft Developer Network and try to see what Microsoft thinks are the top ten things you need to do to make a good Vista application. You’ll find impossibly vague suggestions like “Run securely” (wow, why didn’t I think of that) or “Establish a customer feedback loop” (wow, innovative). To support these ideas, they list literally dozens of libraries and new controls, new APIs, zillions of tech notes. No modern windowing system seems simple, but sometimes I think that Microsoft must have a logging and paper company as one of their subsidiaries. Despite Scoble’s intent, Microsoft is not at all nice to their developers: otherwise their wouldn’t be this constant barrage of new complexity with every release. They simply wouldn’t have to: they’d have some consistent vision and direction on how to help their developers, rather than just being blown by whatever group delivers another 100K lines of code. When we read on memeorandum or the like about productive programming environments, the hot topics are Ruby on Rails and Python, not .NET.

Scoble has a tough job: evangelizing technology which really isn’t all that exciting to consumers who really don’t care, and a software environment that’s just plain hostile to developers. It’s not the religious connotations of evangelism that should worry him, it’s that Microsoft doesn’t have a cause he can get behind.

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