Dear Microsoft: Make It Stop, Please!

Those incessant and infuriating dialog boxes in the Office X trial version that keep nagging me to buy just cost you a customer

By Alex Salkever

TO: Bill Gates

C/O Microsoft Corp.

One Microsoft Way

Redmond, WA 98052-6399

Dear Bill:

I wanted to say thank you very much for letting me test drive a version of Microsoft Office for the latest Apple operating system, OS X. Office X has a really nice interface, and it looks like it has lots of nifty tools. But after playing around on it for a couple of days, I have to conclude that I'm not interested.

Why? Because of the incessant prompts that your engineers have built into the 30-day trial version. I downloaded this puppy thinking I could get a flavor of the software, try it out, and see if it's really worth coughing up $500 to purchase. (I know it's closer to $200 for an upgrade, but I don't have an earlier version on my Mac.) I got a flavor of it, all right. The very first e-mail I sent with your Entourage mail client concluded with a sales pitch, a dialog box asking me if I wanted to buy Office X.

So I clicked the box to let you know that, no, I was not yet ready to buy Office X. Then I typed and sent another e-mail. The same dialog box popped up again, requiring me to decline once more.


  Just for fun, I sent five e-mails. The same dialog prompt popped up after every one. I searched in vain for commands to turn off this lovely "feature." No dice.

Apparently, some marketing genius at Redmond had programmed Entourage to continually prompt me until either my 30-day trial ended or I bought the software. This wasn't just annoying. Imagine if every time you completed any small task on your desktop a little guy popped up and said, "Hey, wanna buy some software?" It would slow you down, too. It would possibly drive the average computer user to toss their nifty little Jobs box in front of the next passing truck. I'm not buying.

But wait, it gets worse. I discovered that the same process occurs when one creates Microsoft Word documents in Office X. Anytime you make changes to a file, the prompt appears, asking if you want to buy the software. Set up Excel or PowerPoint files? Same deal. Over several frustrating hours of clicking, I discovered that there was no escape from Microsoft salesmanship.


  Bill, let me draw a couple of analogies to illustrate how unpleasant this sales gambit is for customers. Imagine if you went to a Porsche dealer to take the latest Boxter out for a test drive. As soon as you got it on the road, the salesman told you to pull over and turn off the ignition. Then he popped the sales pitch. "So, your test drive will expire in 20 minutes. Do you want to buy this car?"

What if the sales guy kept stopping the car every 30 seconds to ask if you wanted to buy it? Not only would you be annoyed but you might have a lot of trouble determining if you really liked the car, because you couldn't get any continuous sense of it. Would you buy the car? Unlikely.

Or imagine this: You go to a store to buy a nice suit. You get into the dressing room to try it on, and as you're putting on your pants, the salesperson knocks on the door and asks if you're ready to buy it yet. Annoying? You bet. Would you buy the suit? Probably not.


  Microsoft is hardly alone in this respect. America Online, with its incessant sales pitches and pop-ups, is just as irritating. AOL's marketing strategy has actually goaded some software programmers into building programs that stop pop-ups. Those inane "pop-under" ads are another blight upon the desktop that shouldn't be forgiven.

When I spoke to Microsoft about my problem with the nonstop sales prompts, spokespeople said it was part of their antipiracy strategy: They feel that software pirates could easily remove the 30-day restriction on trial software and turn it into a full version. But these same hackers might have trouble removing the pop-up pitches, which would deter them from selling or using the software.

That sounds fishy to me. Anyone who can hack in and remove the 30-day restriction could probably get rid of the prompts -- just look at those programmers who disabled AOL's pop-ups. But that's Microsoft's story. And yes, the company did think about whether this might annoy test drivers. Just how much it would annoy them, however, it probably didn't comprehend.


  Bill, these prompts are a bad sales tactic. In fact, largely because of them, I'm putting off purchasing Office X indefinitely. I am planning to make do with AppleWorks instead and a patchwork of other e-mail clients and programs. Assembling them might not be as easy as turning on Office X. But call me stubborn -- I just don't want to give in to such relentless sales pressure.

Now if you could show me how to turn off this little, I mean feature...well, I might be more in a buying mood. And perhaps you could send a memo to Microsoft's Apple marketing staff. It would be pretty simple. How about this? "If it will bother your friends, then it will bother the customer." Words to live by, Bill. Good luck.


Alex Salkever

Salkever is Technology editor for BusinessWeek Online

Edited by Douglas Harbrecht

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