Monday, January 14, 2013

In the cloud there is nothing more important than customer trust. Without customer trust, a cloud business can’t succeed. When you are taking care of someone else’s assets, you have to treat those assets as more important than your own. Security has to be rock solid and absolutely unassailable. Data loss or data corruption has to be close to impossible and incredibly rare.  And all commitments to customers have to be respected through business changes. These are hard standards to meet but, without success against these standards, a cloud service will always fail. Customers can leave any time and, if they have to leave, they will remember you did this to them.

 

These are facts and anyone working in cloud services labors under these requirements every day. It’s almost reflexive and nearly second nature. What brought this up for me over the weekend was a note I got from one of my cloud service providers. It emphasized that it really is worth talking more about customer trust.

 

Let’s start with some history.  Many years ago, Michael Merhej and Tom Klienpeter started a company called ByteTaxi that eventually offered a product called Foldershare. It was a simple service with a simple UI but it did peer-to-peer file sync incredibly well, it did it through firewalls, it did it without install confusion and, well, it just worked. It was a simple service but was well executed and very useful. In 2005, Microsoft acquired Foldershare and continued to offer the service. It didn’t get enhanced much for years but it remained useful.  Then Microsoft came up with a broader plan called Windows Live Mesh and the Foldershare service was renamed. Actually the core peer-to-peer functionality passed through an array of names and implementations from Foldershare, Windows Live Foldershare, Windows Live Sync and finally Windows Live Mesh.

 

During the early days at Microsoft, it was virtually uncared for and had little developer attention. As new names and implementations were announced and the feature actually had developer attention, it was getting enhanced but, ironically, it was also getting somewhat harder to use and definitely less stable. But, it still worked and the functionality lived on in Live Mesh. Microsoft has another service called Skydrive that does the same thing that all the other cloud sync services do: sync files to cloud hosted storage. Unfortunately, it doesn’t include the core peer-to-peer functionality of Live Mesh.  Reportedly 40% of the Live Mesh users also use Skydrive.

 

This is where we get back to customer trust. Over the weekend, Microsoft sent out a note to all Mesh users confirming it will be shut off next month as a follow up to their announcement that the service will be killed that went out in December. They explained the reason to terminate the service and remove the peer-to-peer file sync functionality:

 

Currently 40% of Mesh customers are actively using SkyDrive and based on the positive response and our increasing focus on improving personal cloud storage, it makes sense to merge SkyDrive and Mesh into a single product for anytime and anywhere access for files.

 

Live Mesh is being killed without a replacement service.  It’s not a big deal but 2 months isn’t a lot of warning. I know that this sort of thing can happen to small startups anytime and, at any time, customers could get left unsupported. But, Microsoft seems well beyond the startup phase at this point.  I get that strategic decisions have to be made but there are times when I wonder how much thought went into the decision. I suspect it was something like “there are only 3 million Live Mesh customers so it’s really not worth continuing with it.” And, it actually may not be worth continuing the service. But, there is this customer trust thing. And I just hate to see it violated – it’s bad for all cloud provider when anyone in the industry makes a decision that raises the customer trust question.

 

Fortunately, there is a Mesh replacement service: http://www.cubby.com/.  I’ve been using it since the early days when it was in controlled beta. Over the last month or so Cubby has moved to full, unrestricted production. It’s been solid for the period I’ve been using it and, like Foldershare, its simple and it works. I really like it. If you are a Mesh user, were a Foldershare user, or just would like to be able to sync your files between your different systems, try Cubby.  Cubby also add support for Android or IOS devices without extra cost. Cubby is well executed and stable.

 

It must be Cloud Cleaning week at Microsoft.  A friend forwarded the note sent to the millions of active Microsoft Messenger customers this month: the service is being “retired” and users are recommended to consider Skype.

 

If you are interested in reading more on the Live Mesh service elimination, the following is the text of the note sent to all current Mesh users:

Dear Mesh customer,

Recently we released the latest version of SkyDrive, which you can use to:

  • Choose the files and folders on your SkyDrive that sync on each computer.
  • Access your SkyDrive using a brand new app for Android v2.3 or the updated apps for Windows Phone, iPhone, and iPad.
  • Collaborate online with the new Office Web apps, including Excel forms, co-authoring in PowerPoint and embeddable Word documents.

Currently 40% of Mesh customers are actively using SkyDrive and based on the positive response and our increasing focus on improving personal cloud storage, it makes sense to merge SkyDrive and Mesh into a single product for anytime and anywhere access for files. As a result, we will retire Mesh on February 13, 2013. After this date, some Mesh functions, such as remote desktop and peer to peer sync, will no longer be available and any data on the Mesh cloud, called Mesh synced storage or SkyDrive synced storage, will be removed. The folders you synced with Mesh will stop syncing, and you will not be able to connect to your PCs remotely using Mesh.

We encourage you to try out the new SkyDrive to see how it can meet your needs. During the transition period, we suggest that, in addition to using Mesh, you sync your Mesh files using SkyDrive. This way, you can try out SkyDrive without changing your existing Mesh setup. For tips on transitioning to SkyDrive, see SkyDrive for Mesh users on the Windows website. If you have questions, you can post them in the SkyDrive forums.

Mesh customers have been influential and your feedback has helped shape our strategy for Mesh and SkyDrive. We would not be here without your support and hope you continue to give us feedback as you use SkyDrive.

Sincerely,

The Windows Live Mesh and SkyDrive teams

 

There is real danger of thinking of customers as faceless aggregations of hundreds of thousands or even millions of users. We need to think through decisions one user at a time and make it work for them individually. If millions of active users are on Microsoft Messenger, what would it take to make them want to use Skype?  If 60% of the Windows Live Mesh users chose not to use Microsoft Skydrive, why is that? Considering customers one at a time is clearly the right thing for customers but, long haul, it’s also the right thing for the business. It builds the most important asset in the cloud, customer trust.

 

                                                --jrh

 

James Hamilton 
e: jrh@mvdirona.com 
w: 
http://www.mvdirona.com 
b: 
http://blog.mvdirona.com / http://perspectives.mvdirona.com

Monday, January 14, 2013 8:32:32 PM (Pacific Standard Time, UTC-08:00)  #    Comments [16] - Trackback
Services
Tuesday, January 15, 2013 12:57:39 AM (Pacific Standard Time, UTC-08:00)
You didn't really explain, why can't all of the Live Mesh users just switch to SkyDrive? You ask, "If 60% of the Windows Live Mesh users chose not to use Microsoft Skydrive, why is that?" but you don't give an answer. Are you implying the answer isn't just inertia?
Tuesday, January 15, 2013 8:58:07 AM (Pacific Standard Time, UTC-08:00)
Unfortunately this is not a rare occurance. Google and other large service providers occasionally abandon or retire services that are no longer strategic to them, e.g. Google Gears. When this happens it causes consumers to question whether their provider is really committed to supporting other services that are currently in market. That said, Mesh was largely a free service and it may not have been economically viable for Microsoft to continue supporting it. The only way Microsoft and other large providers can offer free services like this is to subsidize it through advertising, getting economies of scale, or charging a fee. Fortunately, there are no shortage of alternatives nowadays.
Jeremy Cowan
Tuesday, January 15, 2013 8:59:44 AM (Pacific Standard Time, UTC-08:00)
David asked is it more than inertia that keeps people from moving from Mesh to Skydrive? Unfortunately, yes. Mesh has a primary and a secondary feature: 1) peer-to-peer device file sync, and 2) ability for a user to remote into a remote device. Unfortunately Skydrive has neither. It's kind of like replacing Office with Visual Studio. They are very different products.

--jrh
Tuesday, January 15, 2013 9:44:09 AM (Pacific Standard Time, UTC-08:00)
I don't understand why peer-to-peer file sync is useful. You seem to think this is so obvious it's not worth explaining. SkyDrive lets you sync your files to a cloud server *and* to all of your clients, right? I'm sure there is some reason that this is not an adequate substitute for peer-to-peer sync, I just feel ignorant for not knowing what that reason is. Because you have to pay for cloud storage that you might not want? Because there is some specific functionality you get one way and not the other? Should I be embarrassed that I don't know? Or is there a reason you're not saying?
Tuesday, January 15, 2013 10:06:31 AM (Pacific Standard Time, UTC-08:00)
Jeremy brought up the point that perhaps Mesh was killed to save money or move resources to another project. It's actually very resource light. Because its a peer-to-peer service, it only uses the cloud for 1) metadata tracking, and 2) bouncing off the cloud to punch through some firewall configurations. Its very resource light.

After Microsoft completed the Foldershare acquisition, it ended up with no staff for a couple of years and was maintained by Tom Kleinpeter alone in his spare time. The net is it's not expensive technology to host. However, I don't doubt that it eventually hard a large team of engineers and it probably was costing real money. I'm just skeptical that the real money being spent actually had customer value.

It's easier from a management perspective to kill a service than reduce the staffing levels on it.

--jrh
Tuesday, January 15, 2013 10:09:13 AM (Pacific Standard Time, UTC-08:00)
In 2005 Hotmail has deleted my mail box for a 30 day absenteeism streak (it was a pretty good vacation, other than this incident). Many years of emails, my address book, everything was destroyed. That was the last time I touched anything that came out of Microsoft online services - if they have people like that working in their division, who's to tell what service are they working on now? I could be placated by a full-blow "trust push", akin to the famous security push, where every single employee gets drilled on the importance of not screwing over your users, but I'm not holding my breath. Renaming it to outlook.com is not going to cut it - "can't get fooled again!". And I will never tire of telling this story.
Denis Altudov
Tuesday, January 15, 2013 10:26:39 AM (Pacific Standard Time, UTC-08:00)
David asked "I don't understand why peer-to-peer file sync is useful. You seem to think this is so obvious it's not worth explaining. SkyDrive lets you sync your files to a cloud server *and* to all of your clients, right?".

Basically why do peer-to-peer when you could just sync from each device to the cloud and from the cloud to each device? The key issue is storage cost: peer-to-peer is very close to free for multiple TB whereas cloud sync for multiple terrabytes on Skydriver is over $1,000/year at current Microsoft rates. The secondary issue is bandwidth consumption and cost. When running as I sometimes do on expensive communication channels, sending everything once to the cloud and then bringing it all back down again once for each device is super expensive and tough on any other work happening on that communication channel. Moving all data once for each device is hard on bandwith for a multiple device user and expensive if running on satellite or cellular infrastructure.

Foldershare (and Live Mesh) had close to zero cost to Microsoft and didn't charge customers. Skydrive trying to accomplish device sync for the same data volumes would cost thousands. Skydrive is a very different product and does some things far better and others, like peer-to-peer sync, not at all.

-jrh
Tuesday, January 15, 2013 10:33:06 AM (Pacific Standard Time, UTC-08:00)
Sorry all your Hotmail (Outlook.com) email was deleted Denis. I totally get why you are annoyed. I would be too.

--jrh
Wednesday, January 16, 2013 6:33:37 PM (Pacific Standard Time, UTC-08:00)
Microsoft knows how many people are using Live Mesh to sync multiple terabytes of data over local networks. My guess is that it's something like 0.01%, plus those people obviously tend to be technically sophisticated and know of lots of other ways to accomplish that task. So it's pretty easy to see why they would not place very much weight on that use case for their free service.
Friday, January 18, 2013 10:05:48 AM (Pacific Standard Time, UTC-08:00)
David says "Microsoft knows how many people are using Live Mesh to sync multiple terabytes of data over local networks." You are certainly right that this data is available. What I'm questioning is whether or not it gets looked it or Microsoft even cares about the answer. Generally, Microsoft makes big decisions looking for high revenue products and even $50m/year products successful by any industry metric are hard to sustain at Microsoft. Knowing how many people have certain characteristics and caring about the answer are different questions.

David, you are arguing that few have 100s of TB. Knowing disk sales numbers and the growth rates of 3 and 4TB drives, I don't agree with you but it's not super important. The same issues play out at smaller data sizes. Take even 100G of photos and media and work the cost numbers and you'll see the appeal of peer-to-peer sync. Skydrive gets expensive as the data sizes grow and consumer data sizes are growing super fast right now driven by high resolution digital pictures, video, and media. If each time I downloaded a days worth of pictures at a couple of hundred meg of pictures, I had to flow all those pictures up to Skydrive and then flow them all back down to my cell, two tablets, and central server, that's a lot of bandwidth. Then, if you add metadata to the pictures. Each tag added, flows up to Skydrive and then back down 4 time. Its just not efficient, dominated the communications pipe, and if you are paying for bytes transferred runs up the bill.

--jrh
Friday, January 18, 2013 10:04:52 PM (Pacific Standard Time, UTC-08:00)
I agree that if you want to mirror a huge amount of content to many different devices on a single LAN, that Live Mesh would be a way better way to do that than SkyDrive. I just think it's literally 1 in 10,000 of Live Mesh customers who were using it that way, and it's easy to see why Microsoft wouldn't dedicate a lot of time and energy to supporting them. How many people do you actually think need or want to carry around the same 100GB of photos on each of three mobile devices? You might be the only one in America. A lot more normal is to keep your data on one server (hopefully, with RAID) and then download specific content to the individual devices that you want it on.

I see that what you're talking about could conceivably be useful. I just think it's useful to a much smaller number of people, and the way to support this is with a third party application aimed at that relatively small and specialized community. It shouldn't be at all surprising when Microsoft de-emphasizes support for such a niche use model in a free, mass-market product. Besides, if you depend on Live Mesh, then you're stuck with only Windows devices, right? That just illustrates why a third-party solution (like Cubby, and I'm sure there are others) actually makes more sense for everyone.
Saturday, January 19, 2013 8:16:51 AM (Pacific Standard Time, UTC-08:00)
David, you are arguing that only 1:1000 actually need Mesh so they won't mind the service being shut off with 2 months notice. I respect your perspective but you are essentially making my point. Your making an argument on the basis of statistical understanding of the overall customer base. My point is that treating customers as faceless aggregations and making decisions on the basis of statistical understanding is hard on customer trust. And, these "statistical understandings" are frequently incorrect at big companies. Often it's just hearsay without any data. You know, the "knowledge" that comes from three customer meetings and feedback at a users conference"

The statistical arguments are very dangerous. Hardly anyone calls customer support, so let's not worry about customer experience when they do. Few people use this feature so let's remove it and not give a migration path. Not very many people were using tablets 3 years ago so let's not do a tablet product.

In my view, making decisions that don't respect customers individually and ensuring they are all treated fairly is a mistake and a remarkably large number of customers discover this after they have faded from relevance. Killing a service where the primary feature is not available in the "replacement" product is hard on customer trust. Even innovative mechanisms like transferring the customer base and implementation to Cubby is better than just shutting off with 60 days notice. Actually that would have been pretty smart.

My observation, and you may not agree, is that companies successful with services will make more customer-centric decisions. But I freely admit, this is an opinion. The real test is to look back 2 years from now at Skydrive market penetration specifically and, more generally, the market impact of companies focused on customer experience vs those making feature and service decisions without this focus. My thesis is there really is a difference and we'll see it.

--jrh

Saturday, January 19, 2013 10:58:54 PM (Pacific Standard Time, UTC-08:00)
I guess we just have very different opinions about what it means to be "treated fairly". When I'm using a free product and in a way that is very unusual, I don't really feel anyone has entered into a solemn promise to me to keep supporting that service forever. Mass-market consumer products are aimed at mass-market consumers. If you're a power user who makes the choice to use this kind of mass-market product, I think you should expect that when the needs of the mass market shift, the product is going to shift with it. To portray this as "not customer-centric" is to ask large companies to allocate a disproportionate share of their resources to a niche audience who is using their products in unusual ways, at the expense of the mass market who is using their products in common ways.
Sunday, January 20, 2013 8:08:46 AM (Pacific Standard Time, UTC-08:00)
It's got nothing to do with "treated fairly" David. It's about the importance of customer trust in the cloud market. My thesis is if a company doesn't have trust, they won't do as well. The real will be looking back 2 years from now in retrospect at Skydrive market penetration specifically and, more generally, the market impact of companies focused on customer experience vs those making feature and service decisions without this focus. My thesis is there really is a difference and we'll see it.

--jrh
Monday, January 21, 2013 12:42:13 PM (Pacific Standard Time, UTC-08:00)
I think James is making an excellent point. I've come to a point with MS where I am unwilling to use their products, even if I like them better from a technological point of view, because of their constant shift of strategies. I am just not willing anymore to invite someone to a Skydrive folder for collaboration. Why? I invited people to foldershare, I invited them to Mesh, I invited them to Groove (remember?) and each and every single time MS shut the stuff down after a while. Why on earth should I believe that skydrive is now the new, solid thing for the future?

But I think the really interesting thing with MS's cloud storage strategy is that it must be the most amazing case of being in a position early on to just completely own that market, and then failing so badly due to strategic mistakes that it will be interesting to see whether they can catch up. Microsoft built at least four different versions of essentially the same product, over and over again (foldershare, mesh, groove [to some extent] and skydrive). Each time they started from scratch. Each product had some features that none of the others had. Even now that they've consolidated on skydrive, they are still lacking absolutely essential features: if someone invites me to a shared folder I cannot sync that to my hard drive. The whole integration into Windows, which could have been the killer feature, is essentially not there: the metro app doesn't have offline, the desktop app is hardly integrated into explorer at all. If you DO install skydrive, you have the weirdest namespace for storing stuff on your computer: try explaining the relationship between libraries and skydrive and all of that to your mom, it is entirely weird.

Just imagine MS had taken this field seriously from the beginning, had put all their effort into one product, had early on integrated this properly into windows explorer and windows itself. I bet you anything this space would look very, very different today. They just messed up by going with the office integration first (which, by the way, I have not used a SINGLE time since it was introduced because either my collaborators didn't have the right version of Office or it simply didn't work).

And then, there is simply momentum: every one I know (I work at a large research university) has a google drive account. Why even bother people with anything else? Especially if that is not up feature wise.
David
Monday, January 21, 2013 1:33:38 PM (Pacific Standard Time, UTC-08:00)
David summarizes the customer trust problem in his comment perhaps better than I did in the original post. Well done David.

The key takeaway, and one we can all learn from, is to make sure that no customer ever says this about one of our products: "I've come to a point with MS where I am unwilling to use their products, even if I like them better from a technological point of view, because of their constant shift of strategies." Don't embarrass your customers, if you release a product and take it out of beta, stand behind it or give your users a painless migration path. Don't be fooled in to thinking "hey the product is free, what do they expect." They expect a lot. Presumably, you did the free product because you expect to monetize those customers in some way. They have value so don't piss them off. Keep them productive and keep them happy.

In cloud services, nothing is more valuable than customer trust.

-jrh
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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed here are my own and do not necessarily represent those of current or past employers.

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