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Microsoft Must Get The Windows 8 Commerce Model Right

Microsoft has innovated well on the tech side of Win 8/Metro, but it has a huge problem on the commerce side.
The first problem by itself was pretty egregious: The Xbox back-office accounting system where the Metro Video app sent me to buy the movie has a well-known bug, well-known because once I talked to technical support, it was apparent they'd encountered it many times before. This little bug prevented me from linking a credit card to my account: I verified with my credit card company that the authorization went through on its end, just not on the Xbox side. That makes it hard to actually buy the movie. Tech support kindly spotted me the points I needed to rent the movie (points, as this is Xbox, a gaming site, so, you don't transact in actual currency--more on this problem later), but the only way I could buy any more movies for three days until they fixed the back-office bug was to purchase a pre-paid Xbox card. This bug is so well known that tech support even knows how long it takes to get it fixed.

It's clear from the Xbox back-office bug that something is rotten in Microsoft's e-commerce strategy, especially as it's apparently a known bug that for whatever reason remains unfixed. That this can and should be fixed goes without saying, and it should be easy enough for a company with Microsoft's tech firepower. How it can persist for more than a few days makes me wonder if Xbox gamers are just more tolerant of this kind of nonsense, or if they have some other way to get the points they need from Microsoft. Regardless, it was strike one against Microsoft's commerce model.

Strike two happened when I tried to watch the last two-thirds of the movie, and the Slate Video app crashed, yielding some arcane error code. Fair enough, this isn't the GA release, so I never expected the Metro experience to be bug free. But the problem escalated when I contacted Microsoft tech support to resolve the problem. Since I bought the movie from Xbox, I contacted Xbox account management support people. They hemmed and hawed, and finally said I'd have to talk to someone at Xbox Live support to resolve this issue.

Okay, I thought, what do I know about Xbox and Xbox Live. But more importantly, why do I even have to know the difference to buy a movie? I should mention that support wanted to authenticate my account by asking me for the credit card I had provided, which meant I had to launch into the back-office software story. Luckily, there was a security question that I'd set up in my Microsoft Live account years ago that I actually could remember--on the second try.

By this time, I had decided to download the movie onto to my Windows 7 laptop and watch it there. That should be easy, right? I bought the movie from Xbox, surely I could just move the download authorization to another device (something I can do with an audio book on my public library's website, so it should be easy). But Xbox Live support punted on this as well: Not only didn't they understand what was happening on the Slate, they couldn't help me download the movie to Windows 7. That, I was told, was a job for Zune support.

Zune? I was on a Metro tablet buying an Xbox movie that now needed support from Zune, which, when last I checked, was a discontinued iPod wannabe. (Actually, the brand has morphed into a digital media store, though why the brand was worth preserving is beyond me.) And herein lies the gist of problem two: Microsoft has two commerce sites trying to serve a single customer with a single goal, and their lack of integration makes the consumer experience more than just problematic. Pain in the ass is the best way I can describe it.

By now I'd been trying to resolve this Slate problem for an hour. Factor in the time I spent trying to add a credit card to my Xbox account, and I'd already spent two hours--pretty much the movie's entire runtime--without having seen more than the first 30 minutes of the movie.

So now for Zune, which doesn't offer telephone support; chat is the only way to communicate. But they had a fix: I had to download Zune for Windows 7, sign on (using my Windows Live account), and then find my movie, download it, and run it on Zune. Right. I was on it.

When I finally got the Zune process underway, believe it or not, I could no longer download the movie because the download timeframe had expired. Zune support generously offered to refund the points I had spent, but first we needed to verify my account using my credit card number! OMG! At this point, I hope you're laughing, because I was truly in stitches. This comedy of errors was beyond unbelievable.

Luckily I knew the security question cold, so we got that settled quickly, the points instantly appeared, and my Zune download began. Now I'm on the airplane home, daring myself to actually try to watch it. If you hear about a Virgin America passenger who ran amok and started eating his laptop, you'll know this story didn't end well.

On to problem three: The lack of an integrated customer experience. I have a Microsoft Live account that I use to sign into all sorts of things. It has a little graphical icon that appears when I sign on to use various non-commercial services at Microsoft (like registering for Microsoft conferences.) I had to use that same Live account for Xbox (a gaming site, though I've no interest in being a gamer), where it has its own funky Xbox avatar, and I used it again for Zune (another service I have no connection to), which created a third little graphic next to my account name.

This multiple personality disorder is a mess and will be the nail in the coffin for Microsoft's aspirations to beat Apple if it doesn't get resolved. This problem isn't just a matter of signing on, of course. Buying movies with Xbox gamer points, making it hard to move content between devices, not to mention the support morass--all this will help Tim Cook sleep well for some time to come.

The moral of the story is that Microsoft has innovated well on the tech side, but it has a long way to go on the apps side and even more so on the commerce side. While the groundwork has been laid for a critical mass of apps to emerge, I have concerns that the commerce side is showing Microsoft's infamous siloes at their worst, and it may take a while for this mess to be resolved.

It's not just Win 8/Metro that's in release preview, it's the whole business model. My concern is that Microsoft is working away at making Win 8/Metro even better and setting the groundwork for a robust developer community, but it's asleep at the switch when it comes to the commercial experience.

Hopefully I'm wrong, because if I'm not my Slate will end up in the pile next to my HP Touchpad. It would be a shame to see such a good start go to waste.

Josh Greenbaum is principal of Enterprise Applications Consulting, a Berkeley, Calif., firm that consults with end-user companies and enterprise software vendors large and small. Clients have included Microsoft, Oracle, SAP, and other firms that are sometimes analyzed in his columns. Write him at [email protected].

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