The Redmond Reality Distortion Field

Sometimes I get asked "What the hell were you guys at Microsoft thinking when you did [insert action/product/initiative]?

It’s not exactly our fault. The answer is the Redmond Reality Distortion Field. To wit:

The Redmond Reality Distortion Field:

The field that influences Microsoft employees and product designers to make wildly incorrect assumptions on the use of technology, computers and devices by the world. The field is caused by the fact that Microsoft employees tend to be far more affluent and have free access to technology than the general population. Generated by Microsoft employees, the field is centered in Redmond but can manifest itself weakly in any area where a significant number of employees gather, such as remote campuses or subsidiaries.

Its most common effect on individuals is to make design decisions or requests either on the way customers should use products as opposed to how they actually use them, or by the interoperability of a product in the unique environment of the employee’s home.

The field itself is invisible and exceedingly hard to detect, as once under its influence reality itself becomes distorted. Entire Microsoft products have been designed under the influence of the field.

An example of one is the Microsoft Cordless Phone System, released in 1998. While the system itself was innovative and contained many unique features like multiple voicemail boxes, customized answering machine messages for individual caller ID’s, etc, the phone system required a dedicated computer be on at all times to enable its features. Due to the software’s high resource demands and the fact it would only work with Windows 95 or Windows 98, it was assumed customers would dedicate a second PC to the phone, thus essentially asking a customer to commit a $500+ dollar investment to make their new $100 phone work. The assumption is that customers either already had a high end computer, a cast off second computer, or would be willing to buy a second computer to make it work. This assumption is based on the fact that almost every Microsoft employee in 1998 had two computers at home (NOT including work machines) due to our access to technology and tendency to be on the high curve of technology investment. Now? Well It’s 10 years later and I have five computers in my home, which I bet is on the low end of most MS people. Imagine what decisions are being made about the general state of home networks today thanks to the field!

Another example of the pervasiveness of the field on the Microsoft campus is feedback between Microsoft product groups. The following is an actual email to the Xbox team, redacted appropriately for confidentiality:

From: [Microsoft Employee]
Sent: [Recently]
To: [Internal Xbox Feedback Alias]
Subject: Xbox LIVE through ISA Server


Nearly 6 years after Xbox LIVE released and our own Firewall/Router product doesn’t allow any setting above "strict" for an Xbox 360.

Repro Steps:

Set up an Xbox on a network that goes through an ISA Server 2000, 2004 or 2006 to get to the internet.
Set up ISA Server to allow ALL traffic.
Do the Xbox LIVE Connection test and note that the NAT type is "strict".
Wait 5 years for these two teams to talk to each other.
Do the Xbox LIVE Connection test and note that the NAT type is still "strict".

Now, on the face of it you might expect that indeed, our firewall product should work well with Xbox LIVE. Until you realize that ISA Server is our corporate level firewall, which requires significant technical expertise and a license for Windows Server to operate. So the ISA people optimize their time and development tasks towards corporate scenarios. Xbox and Xbox LIVE dedicates our resources to optimize consumer scenarios.

At a bare minimum, this employee, due to their access to our products, is running $2500 dollars worth of enterprise software capable of handling tens of thousands of users to basically perform the function of a $59 standard router easily capable of handling 20 users.

Where the field comes in, is that the employee doesn’t just want the two teams to dedicate resources to make it work to their level of expectation, but expects it to already be a priority simply because Microsoft makes both products.

So when you wonder why, exactly, the company would have Playsforsure not work with the Zune or release a digital USB speaker system (whose best features required USB) at a time when few computers had USB at all, the answer is the Redmond Reality Distortion Field. It’s not our fault. Really.

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