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October 27, 2006

Using Our Stuff: Mandate or Choice?

When I was a kid, we once visited a friend of my father's who lived in Detroit. We were in the parking lot of a store and I noticed something funny: every single car was American. My father's friend explained that if you drove a foreign car it would get scratched with keys, bumped into when parked, etc. so everybody bought American.

This was the early 1980s and the American car market was getting hit pretty hard by imports. And if you've read Rivethead (and if you haven't, what's stopping you?) you might not be surprised that a typical auto worker didn't have an enlightened view of offshoring (if indeed there is such a view). Still, having such a monoculture in Detroit meant that people who actually built cars had very little exposure to the competitors who were beating them in the rest of the country. Plus, while it may have been satisfying for auto executives to look around and see their entire town driving the local product, it didn't mean much because it was a forced choice. It would have been much more impressive if foreign auto ownership was as tolerated as it was in the rest of the country and people STILL chose to drive American cars.

Here's another example: someone I know works for a jeans company, and they are specifically disallowed from wearing competitor's jeans to work. I have the same reaction: it might be nice to see everybody wearing your product, but wouldn't it be better to let people wear whatever they wanted, and treat employees wearing your competitor's jeans as a sign that you needed to improve your own product? Especially since, as with Detroit cars, your employees can buy your own stuff cheaper, so they are making a very active decision to wear (or drive) something else.

I think of this because sometimes there is a vibe that goes around Microsoft that we should use our own products instead of competitors. That is, we should all use live.com instead of Google, we should use Internet Explorer instead of Firefox, we should use Windows Mobile phones instead of others, we shouldn't buy iPods, and so on. And this is not just at work: the feeling is that we should do this in our personal life also.

(I should clarify that I have never heard this stated as official policy: Microsoft allows people to run Firefox at work, our DHCP servers will hand out an address to a Linux box (which they may not be able to detect, actually), you can connect to google.com from corpnet as easily as to live.com, and so on. So it's not an official policy like at the jeans company. But it is a buzz you pick up in the air sometimes.)

My feeling on this, if you haven't guessed, is that it is a bunch of hooey. At home I used both Firefox and IE, and both google and live; we own several iPods, and my wife has a Mac. What of it? The reason these are used is because they are better (or were better when we began using them) and I haven't found the incentive to switch. In this I think I represent a typical consumer, and therefore if I do switch, it's a real victory, not an artificial one.

Now, there are several things I do because I am a Microsoft employee. For one thing, if there is any work-related reason to use a particular product, I will. If Microsoft wants us to beta-test a client application, or put us on alpha versions of Exchange 2007, I'm more than happy to go along. I also try out our stuff more often than I probably would if I didn't work here; a little while ago I decided to try a beta of Internet Explorer 7, and the copy of Firefox on my work machine is now gathering electronic dust.

That's an honestly-earned win for IE. And that's the kind of win we should be targeting, not a forced switch just because.

Posted by AdamBa at October 27, 2006 09:46 PM

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all well and good but what about Mr Ballmer and his "I dont let my kids use Google or ipods - they are brainwashed to not use them"
or his "how many use google please raise your hands" at the company meeting?
sends a pretty strong message if you ask me!

Posted by: NewlyAssimilated at October 28, 2006 08:41 AM

I'm slightly on the fence about this.

The counter argument is - sometimes employees can provide real valuable feedback and improve an application by being beta testers. For example, if you look at Windows Vista, I'm sure it has benefited a lot from the internal dogfooding attempts.

What I go tell people is - try out our stuff. If you don't like it, let that team know (that's important). And then check back later to see whether they've fixed your issues. Repeat.

Posted by: Sriram Krishnan at October 28, 2006 08:57 AM

In my own experience, I feel that I have only ever been asked to use MS products in the spirit of helping the company polish them or because as a product manager, I should know our products.

I have never felt any type of pressure to use MS products out of some abstract principle of cultish loyalty. (Although I do sense that some people do feel that way).


Posted by: kayvaan at October 28, 2006 10:49 AM

I feel very similar. I use non-MS things. I use what I feel is better. I still use google search because I think it is better than live search (I can actually say that because I use searchoff internally and google is still better, but live is getting better). However, I use virtual earth as opposed to google maps because I like it is better. I also used to use firefox but ever since I started using IE7 I've pretty much stopped using it because I like IE7 better.

One of my good friends works for google and he gave me a few google t-shirts and I sometimes wear them to work and get strange looks, but I really don't care.

Posted by: Wes at October 28, 2006 11:33 AM

Yes, I do get that feeling sometimes from Ballmer. Then again maybe he's just taking a survey out of curiosity.

I should point out (and I should have thought of this in the original post, it would have connected it better) that Ballmer grew up in Detroit as the son of a Ford Motor Company executive.

- adam

Posted by: Adam Barr at October 28, 2006 12:38 PM

It went beyond everyone in Detroit buying an American car. Only Fords were parked in Ford parking lots. And when my friend worked in Pittsburgh for six months at a GM office there (he was a sales technical rep for Burroughs and was helping them computerize their office in the 60s), he was told in no uncertain terms that his VW was not welcome in their parking lot, although since he wasn't actually working for GM, another American car would have been acceptable.

Anyway, the conclusion is interesting and maybe I will get a copy of IE and compare it with Mozilla.

Posted by: marble chair at October 29, 2006 11:14 AM

Now that Ford owns Volvo, I wonder if Volvos are allowed in the parking lot.

Posted by: Dennis at November 5, 2006 08:42 PM