Open the Kimono

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Personally, I am not a big Microsoft services user. I use Google Apps (email and online collaboration), iCloud (Apple), Dropbox (documents) and WordPress (blogging), and while I do use Microsoft software when relevant - Word, PowerPoint, Excel - and am grateful for the near-ubiquitous Exchange protocol, I do not use their cloud services very much.

But many millions of people - and businesses - do. So when Microsoft has an extended outage of 12 hours for the single most important service available for any business or person nowadays - email - as they did earlier this week, the level of trust they will receive for the future depends on their level of openness.

Microsoft, historically, is not a very open company, because it didn't start that way. Its roots are in desktop software, in a new environment where intellectual property protections were few, in any case they had little recourse to attorneys, and keeping the crown jewels - their source code - secret was a key advantage. Over the years, as Microsoft's operating systems developed, and it both courted developers to write software for Windows and competed with them with its own software, stories abounded of secret Windows APIs available only to Microsoft that let its own products run better or faster.

Thus, it isn't surprising that when Microsoft has problems with its online platform - in the old days, they refused to call software problems "bugs," they were just "features" - their natural tendency is to close ranks, hold it in, and tell customers, "just trust us." They are probably also reinforced by the lack of understanding most customers have. Just as very few customers in the 90s could understand how Word was developed, so few nowadays would understand the difference between DNS failure vs routing tables vs environmental issues vs cache corruption.

But 2014 is not 1994. Many customers have technology savvy, while many others have access to such people as colleagues or friends. More importantly, there are sufficient numbers of highly technical people who can and do write on the Web. These people do analyze the responses of technology companies and whether or not they have truly repaired the issues. And many people do read their reports and trust them.

When Amazon Web Services suffered a major outage due to a botched network upgrade back in 2011, they shortly thereafter explained, well, everything. Their detailed blog posts explained what had gone wrong, and, more importantly, why it won't happen again. Amazon did not break out their revenue by product line in FY2011, so I do not know if AWS took a "trust hit", but they have remained the number one cloud choice since then.

If Microsoft wants to maintain its SaaS business, and the trust of its customers, it must explain all, both during and after an outage.