Can Microsoft Still Execute?

Microsoft says its biggest strategic threat is Google. If true, then their most critical tactical initiative is MSN AdCenter, which competes directly for Google’s revenue. Yet my experience with AdCenter was utterly amateur-hour, unbecoming a Fortune 500 firm in any industry. The disconnect between top-down strategic initiatives and bottom-up execution suggest basic operational problems at the firm. Some highlights…

October 2005 through April 2006

  • Frequent 500 errors, forced logouts, all progress lost.
  • All browsers except IE6 failed silently, no error message. IE 7 crashed.
  • Support (800-852-3568) connects to some poor sap’s personal cell. No calls returned.
  • Ads only run in Singapore. Can’t they scale up to run in a major market? Maybe the poor guy with the cellphone will call back and explain.

July 5, 2006:

MSN today sent me two $30 gift certificates to try AdCenter again. There followed a comedy of errors:

  • Account funded, ads approved, but no ads appear. This has been true for months. “Support” does not respond.
  • Account thinks I’m in Singapore, and doesn’t let me change the setting.
  • Started over today with a new account. Explicitly entered USA, yet my location is again recorded as “en-sg” (Singapore).
  • New account system forwards me to a blank page at MSN. No buttons, text, instructions — nothing. Had to browse away, return, log out, log back in.
  • Waited 20 minutes for a “credit check” on my MasterCard. Huh? Any one-man shop can instantly determine validity of U.S. credit cards.
  • Unable to save new ads: browser shows “missing object reference” error. Googled an ASPX programming forum and was able to guess the workaround: log out and back in. Nontechnical users would stall here.
  • Long delays on each page load. While waiting, I was able to log into Google Adwords, check status, and log out — all before the MSN AdCenter page had finished loading.
  • Entered my ad text. On hold again while the ad is approved. Stay tuned…

My overall sense is that this system was not designed to handle the pace of the modern Web. It feels like something from five years ago. Today, customers expect credit cards to be approved instantly, as with Adwords. They expect advertisements to go live instantly, as with Adwords.

And above all, there should be no “A” bugs in the signup and login paths. For a startup, this would be egregious. For a market leader, it’s unconscionable.

September 12, 2006

Microsoft emails me a product launch advertisement for MSN Live Search. Email was sent with the wrong mime type, arriving as an unreadable pile of naked HTML code.

Astonishing. Fly-by-night solo spammers in emerging countries send me hundreds of emails per day, and none have formatting problems. Microsoft is a huge multinational with a reputation for quality execution at all levels. How can their bulk mail performance be two standard deviations worse than the average Russian mobster’s?

I’d ignore it as a onetime screwup, were it not for all the rookie moves in Adcenter — errors routinely avoided by
twentysomething web service development teams of just a few people, on shoestring budgets and GPL platforms.

The only way adCenter could make so many mistakes is if someone in the management chain just doesn’t care. Is the team leader a wealthy, bored MSFT lifer?

October 12, 2006

My credit card expired, visited AdCenter to update it, and the dance began again…

  • AdCenter’s entirely static home page takes 6 seconds to load over my dedicated T1.
  • AdCenter uses a login name distinct from email address (a previous-century design rule).
  • Requested my login name by email. Response didn’t arrive from MSFT for two hours.
  • Now I have my login name, but need my password. Another two hour wait.
  • This 4-hour retrieval process takes 5 minutes at Adwords. No hyperbole.

October 20, 2006

Finally received adCenter password reset info. It requires copying a 512-bit validation code (five hundred and twelve bits, no kidding) back to the browser, along with the new password.

The password reset function in AdCenter failed silently, no error message. Second try, it worked. Went to log in with the new password. Again failed silently on the first try, worked on the second. Tried this on my other AdCenter account, and the same thing happened: fails once, works the second time. I.e., this is a 100% bug in the login path of a shipping product. This could ONLY be shipped by a project manager that does not care about quality.

Finally, I’m all logged in and ready to go and… nothing. Contrary to PR announcements, adCenter still doesn’t support my Mozilla-based browser, and still fails silently: no error messages and half-working pages.

Forget this. Every other piece of my workflow works fine. I’m not firing up IE just to get an extra 3 clicks a month from this also-ran. Sheesh.

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