shirky.com Clay Shirky's Writings About the Internet
Economics and Culture, Media and Community, Open Source
An Open Letter to Microsoft:

Dear Microsoft,

I tried to give you some of my money last weekend and you wouldn't let
me. As this sort of behavior might be bad for your long-term
profitability, I thought I'd write and explain how you can fix the
problem.

Last Sunday night while visiting friends, I remembered that I was
running out of time for a discount plane ticket, so I opened Internet
Explorer 3.0, the browser running on my friend's machine, and went to
Expedia to make my purchase. (I trust it will not be lost on you that
both IE and Expedia are Microsoft products). After submitting my
flight details on Expedia, the results page created so many browser
errors that I couldn't even see what flights were available, much less
buy a ticket.

Do you understand that? I wanted to use your product on your service
to give you my money, and you wouldn't let me. Being a good citizen, I
wrote to the Customer Service address, expecting no more than a piece
of 'Thanks, we'll look into it' mail.  What I got instead was this:

  "Thank you for contacting Expedia with your concerns. Since
  Microsoft has upgraded the website, they have also upgraded the
  version you should use with Expedia. The version will be more
  user-friendly with Internet Explorer 4.0 and above."

Now before you think to yourselves, "Exactly right -- we want to force
people to get new browsers", let me contextualize the situation for
you:

  I cannot use IE 3.0 to buy tickets on Expedia, but...

  I can use IE 3.0 to buy tickets on Travelocity.
  I can use Netscape 3.0 to buy tickets on Expedia.
  I can even use Netscape 3.0 to buy tickets on Travelocity.

Let me assure you that I bought my tickets as planned. I just didn't
buy them with you.

I understand from what I read in the papers that your desktop monopoly
has atrophied your ability to deal with real competition. Get over
it. If you really want to start building customer-pleasing businesses
on the Web (and given the experience I had on Expedia, I am not sure
you do) then let me clue you in to the awful truths of the medium.

First, you need to understand that the operating system wars are over,
and operating systems lost. Mac vs. Windows on PCs? Dead issue. Linux
vs. NT? Nobody but geeks knows or cares what a web site is running
on. There's no such thing as a "personal" computer any more - any
computer I can get to Amazon on is my computer for as long as my hands
are on the keyboard, and any operating system with a browser is fine
by me. Intentionally introducing incompatibilities isn't a way to lock
people in any more, its just a way to piss us off.

Second, media channels don't get "upgrades". You have made a lot of
foolish comments about AOL over the years, because you have failed to
understand that AOL is a media company, not a software company. They
launched AOL 1.0 at about the same time as you launched MS Word 1.0,
and in all that time AOL is only up to version 4.0. How many
"upgrades" has Word had - a dozen? I've lost count. What AOL
understands that you don't is that software is a means and not an
end. As a media company, you can no longer force people to change
software every year.

Third, and this is the most awful truth of all, your customers are the
ones with the leverage in this equation, because your competition is
just a click away. We get to decide what browser we should use to buy
plane tickets or anything else for that matter, and guess what?  The
browser we want to use is whatever browser we have whenever we decide
we want to buy something. Jeff Bezos understands this - Amazon works
with Netscape 1.22. Jerry Yang understands this - there is not a
single piece of javascript on the Yahoo home page. Maybe somebody over
at Microsoft will come to understand this too.

Thinking that you can force us to sit through a multi-hour "upgrade"
of a product we aren't interested in solely for the pleasure of giving
you our money is daft. Before you go on to redesign all your web sites
to be as error-prone as Expedia, ask yourself whether your customers
will prefer spending a couple of hours downloading new software or a
couple of seconds clicking over to your competition.  Judging from the
mail I got from your Customer Service department, the answer to that
question might come as a big surprise.

Yours sincerely,

Clay Shirky 



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shirky.com Clay Shirky's Writings About the Internet
Economics and Culture, Media and Community, Open Source