Google v. Microsoft at the University of Michigan

For reasons and intentions that no one can yet successfully explain, the University of Michigan is asking members of campus (students, faculty, staff) to help make a decision on adopting Google or Microsoft products as part of the school's collaborative and cloud-related work. The full background can be seen here: http://nextgen.umich.edu

Apparently, UM members use myriad sites outside of the school-based email and CMS systems that are currently offered, so UM is asking us to attend some information sessions (not so secretly veiled sales pitches) and put all of our collaborative eggs in one basket. Today I went to the first of these sessions for Microsoft's apparent collaborative suite known as Live@EDU; this is the actual URL they gave us on a printed handout (try typing it out by hand, it's fun and efficient!): http://www.microsoft.com/liveatedu/free-email-accounts.aspx?locale=en-US&country=US

Before I give a run-down of the presentation, let me say upfront that I'm a Google user. I'm as close to brand loyal as they come. However, I'm not brand loyal because they're a youngish, hip start-up, because several of my friends work there, or because I've enjoyed their delicious all-you-can eat lunches on numerous occassions as I spend my free time in San Francisco. I'm brand loyal because their stuff works. It's easy. It's free. It's intuitive. And--definitely not to be overlooked--it's aesthetically pleasing. There's little clutter and they're increasingly allowing me to customize and personalize their pages to my liking.

Likewise, my entire dissertation reserach is on collaboration. I read about collaboration. I write about collaboration. I use collaborative tools for personal use and with my students. After a while you realize what works and what doesn't. And the simple lesson I've gleaned from 4 years of extensive study is that the number one hindrance to successful collaboration is convoluted and counterintuitive work tools. Simply: if a website or program is difficult to one member of the group, or one co-author, then the entire balance of the collaborative group is thrown off. There is an imbalance of power, and voices are potentially silenced. Work suffers, and collaborative projects become a collection of individual projects.

Which is all a way of introducing why I thought Microsoft's presentation was not only an insulting waste of my time today, it was also a lesson in awful oral rhetoric and presentation skills. Here are some bullets of the things that Microsoft, umm, showed us today:

  • They exploited a current UM student (and MS campus rep) by having her speak to a group of a few hundred campus members. I say exploited because she was clearly reading from a rehearsed script, where things she "needed" in a product suite conveniently lined up to what MS offered. At no point was I convinced that she actually used these half-dozen MS programs to get her everyday schoolwork done.
  • The MS reps made a big deal that they were using Mac and Windows machines, and a variety of browsers, all at once. However, half of their screens were cut off and they were continually--during the presentaiton--clicking windows over a meta-commentary of "Now, where was that message?, etc." Even they seemed confused and overwhelmed.
  • Though they claim to cater to both Macs and Windows, nearly half of their functionality relied on right-clicking items. Most computer users can figure out how to do this on a Mac, but it may also be a learning curve for others, especially when you're asking approx. 40K people to adopt the same systems.
  • There were constantly ads on the sides of all of their applications, and not just for other MS products, but also for awful NBC shows like the latest incarnation of Law & Order. Their pages were distracting and looked incredibly non-professional as a result.
  • There were pop-ups every couple of seconds. Pop-ups about add-ons. Pop-ups that people were online. Pop-ups that there were new messages. We watched and waited as the presenters closed them all one at a time as if this were just par for the course.
  • And, finally--and I'd argue most importantly--they were opening and closing dozens of windows and applications. Though the collaborative work started in a browser, it relied on opening MS products like Word and Excel. Email was in a diferent window than calendars. There was never a clear roadmap of how these things were connected, or how--once I went somewhere--I could get back.

As I write this, I realize how critical it sounds. Admittedly, the MS products by and large mirror things that I'm sure Google will also present on. I'm sure Exchange can do a lot of things like GMail. SharePoint (their collaborative, semi-real-time editor) is more than likely a lot like Google Documents. And even when I'm using Google products, I'll almost always defer to MS Office products to do my actual work, creating potential synching and uploading barriers to my collaborative work.

But perhaps it was their presentation more than their products that turned me off. Maybe the nervous and excited, sportcoat w/o tie coolness just feel flat for me as their sentences trailed off, and their myriad clicks seemed intuitive to them, but rushed and overlooked to the crowd. Maybe I'm just stressed about all the other things in my life, and watching someone (anyone) bang around on a few machines to explain software I know I'll never use seemed like too much. Maybe I just didn't give them a fair chance, even though I went in there with an open mind.

But in the end, this entire Google v. Microsoft showdown at UM is about presentation. It's about convincing the school that these products will make our lives easier and more connected. It's about valuing our time and familiarity with tools, and showing (not telling) us how our activities can be streamlined and explained and shared with others easily and efficiently. It's about asking us to collaborate. And after one session, collaborating with Microsoft feels like being stuck in a group project with a bossy, anal partner who won't share his notes and decides to do all of the work on his own anyway.