Apple, Microsoft, and Listening to Customers

on July 10, 2013

iOS 7 beta 3 screenshotEarlier this week, Apple released iOS 7 Beta 3, the third test version of the upcoming software for iPhone and iPad released in a month. Users, by definition registered Apple developers, who installed it made a remarkable discovery: The Helvetica iOS system font, widely denounced as too light by earlier users, had been replaced by a slightly heavier version, producing a big improvement in readability. Apple, to the amazement of many who view the company as a design dictatorship, had listened and changed in response to what it heard.

Oddly, it’s Microsoft, once the paragon of listening to customers, that seems to have lost the knack. The preview version of Windows 8.1 addresses some of the most serious problems with the touch-centric Metro, it does very little to improve the legacy Desktop side of Windows 8. As a result, it does nothing to assuage traditional Windows users’ deep unhappiness with Windows 8. From developers to OEMs to ordinary users, I keep hearing complaints that Microsoft just doesn’t listen.

Apple and Microsoft are treating their previews very differently. Although calling Windows 8.1 a preview, Microsoft seems to think of it as a nearly finished product. In fact, the Windows App Store practically begs you to install the preview.

Windows app store screenshotBy contrast, iOS 7 is a true beta. It is only available to registered iOS developers (though anyone can become one by paying Apple $99 a year, it does require skin ion the game.) The download and installation process seems to be deliberately obscure to discourage the casual. And to download the software, you must agree to a confidentially agreement the prohibits publication of details that have not yet been made public. All of this is typical of serious software testing.

With Microsoft planning to release Windows 8.1 to OEMs by the end of August, I don’t expect that we will see more than minor tweaks to the software. The legacy Desktop will remain a jarring experience, ill-suited to either touch or non-touch use with Metro screen and apps that pop up seemingly unbidden at inconvenient moments. The changes from the version released last October are depressingly minor. There is more real change on the Metro side; in particular, Microsoft has drastically reduced the circumstances under which you have to drop back into Desktop. But the Metro apps, especially Mail, are still seriously under-featured and the app store remains a wasteland.

Microsoft seems to be following a similar course for the new Metro-fied versions of Office applications. Office 2013, released last year along with Windows 8, offered only minor concessions to touch and the applications were largely useless on the surface or other tablets unless there was a keyboard attached. In response to a strong negative reaction, Microsoft accelerated development of real touch versions. These are supposed to ship before the end of the year, but so far Microsoft is keeping them close to the vest. This is especially concerning because making applications such as Word and Outlook touch-friendly will require a radical simplification of the interface and, as a result, a lot of familiar features will have to be removed or hidden. You would think Microsoft would be seeking as much user input on these decisions as possible, but that does not appear to be the case. The result is likely to be another disappointment, though I really hope I am wrong.

iOS 7, by contrast, seems to be evolving quickly. I don’t think Apple will maintain the pace of a new release every couple of weeks, but many subtle design changes in the two updates we have seen suggest that Apple is heeding the concerns of testers. As Marco Arment, developer of Tumblr and Instapaper, put it in his blog:

Since Apple is just people, they’re usually trying to figure out the best answer to the same decisions and trade-offs we argue about on the outside: what’s best for the user, what’s best for battery life, what apps should be allowed to do, how multitasking should work, how far sandboxing should go, and so on. Almost any decision that causes controversy on the outside has almost certainly caused just as much on the inside, it’s probably still being argued, and the decision probably isn’t set in stone.

We can’t participate directly in those debates, but we can provide ammo to the side we agree with.