Tuesday’s announcement from Microsoft regarding the removal of Drive Extender from Windows Home Server has sent shock waves across the web. Whilst I thought the company would undoubtedly take a beating in the press for the decision, I’ve been amazed at the scale of the community response, on this site, on other sites and on Microsoft Connect. The response has been awesome – a true measure of the passion that exists in the community for this product. If you’ve not had the chance to comment, then please take a couple of minutes to share your thoughts with Microsoft. Connect is a great place to do so – all comments are registered in Microsoft’s product feedback/bug database and are visible throughout the organisation.

Inspired by the thousands of comments I’ve read over the last few days, I took the opportunity to write to Microsoft’s CEO, Steve Ballmer, regarding the situation. As you may know, for the last three years Microsoft have invited me to be a part of their MVP Program, which tasks me and a number of other community representatives with representing the “voice of the community” specifically for Windows Home Server. Steve Ballmer has repeatedly asked for customer feedback from MVPs where they believe there is a serious issue concerning a Microsoft product. This is the first time I’ve been compelled to take up the offer – with confused messages coming from Microsoft regarding the thinking behind the decision, and little response coming from the company to the feedback that they’ve received from the community this week, I wanted to ensure your views (and mine!) were being heard by the right people at Microsoft.

Here’s my email to Steve:

From: Terry Walsh
Sent: Thursday, November 25, 2010 12:21 AM
To: Steve Ballmer
Subject: MVP Feedback – Windows Home Server “Vail” Crisis
Importance: High

Dear Steve,

I’ve been a Windows Home Server MVP for the last three years, and I know you’re always keen to hear feedback about your organisation’s product and services from the MVP community.

There’s a significant storm brewing around Microsoft’s next-gen home server platform that I wanted to give you a heads up on and hopefully, inspire you to act. I’ll keep it as brief as possible (excuse the bullet points).

The Story So Far…

  • The decision has been taken to align the code across future versions of Windows Home Server, and two new business oriented releases – Windows Small Business Server 2011 Essentials and Windows Storage Server 2008 R2 Essentials.
  • A core component of the next –gen Windows Home Server (the storage subsystem) called Drive Extender has been found by your developers to create issues on the two small business SKUs with LOB applications.
  • As a result, the decision has been taken to remove the feature from all three SKUs (as the code is aligned). This is eight months into a public beta.
  • Drive Extender is widely regarded as one of the great Microsoft innovations over the last few years – it provides all of the benefits of RAID, with the ability to mix and match hard drives create a storage pool, protect files and folders and dies away with drive letters. It’s fantastically consumer focused and sits at the very heart of the home server proposition.
  • Culling the feature in the home server platform effectively removes the major differentiation vs a growing stable of cheaper and better featured Linux NAS boxes. It fundamentally cripples the consumer proposition.
  • The decision was announced two days ago – since then over 600 negative comments have been left by existing customers on Microsoft Connect, a further 300+ on the Windows Team Blog (here and here), and my own website has had around 200 comments (here and here) deriding the decision. 99% of them say the same three things:

    a. Why should an issue around LOB application support for small business impact a consumer targeted product which does not need LOB application support?

    b. There is little reason to upgrade to the new version of WHS as it now offers significantly less features than v1.

    c. The implication of aligning the code for home and small business products has effectively led to Microsoft losing sight of the consumer (and existing user base), in favour of the new small business customer.

What We Need From You

The development team have announced a planned RTM for all three SKUs by 1H 2011. There’s more than six months available to investigate, act and test. I’d be really grateful if you could:

  • Check out the feedback your customers are providing – they’re telling you clearly what they need from you.
  • Investigate the decision to remove Drive Extender from all three SKUs & the implicated lack of customer focus.
  • Invite the team to look at an alternative way forward for the home server SKU:E.g. Fork the code, pull Drive Extender v2 out of the Small Biz SKUs and reserve it for the consumer proposition.Or: Port Drive Extender v1 into Windows Home Server Vail

I understand Windows Home Server remains a niche product, and the small business server opportunity is compelling. My headline is that the next-generation of the product is currently on life support, but with improved consumer focus, clear thinking (and better consumer marketing, but that’s a different story) Microsoft has the opportunity now to save Windows Home Server before it flatlines.

Thanks for your time and best wishes,

Terry Walsh

Editor, We Got Served

www.wegotserved.com

In truth, I have little knowledge of how Steve Ballmer’s customer feedback loop works with regard to how emails are received, who reads them and how they’re responded to. However, this morning I received the following CEO-class succinct reply:

From: Steve Ballmer
Sent: 26 November 2010 05:30
To: Terry Walsh
Subject: RE: MVP Feedback – Windows Home Server “Vail” Crisis

Let’s look into it

So, clearly there’s never going to be any promises, but with hundreds of comments sent by you to Microsoft directly via the Connect website, and a heads up to the guy at the top of the tree, I trust Microsoft are now clearly aware of the passionate views of the community around this issue. There’s now awareness and commitment from the CEO to look into the issue, although what that really means remains to be seen. The fact that I received a personal reply on the evening of Thanksgiving is hopefully a sign that the company will take your feedback seriously. I guess we’ll find out in the coming weeks and months just how consumer focused the Microsoft organisation is in 2010/2011.

In the meantime, if you’ve not had the chance to comment, please take two minutes to add your thoughts on the removal of Drive Extender over at Microsoft Connect. Kudos to liveside.netneowin.netwithinwindows.com, and mediasmartserver.net for their coverage and analysis this week of the issue.

As I discussed in my post this week, Microsoft have lost sight of the customer Windows Home Server was originally designed for – that’s perhaps understandable as the platform is being managed by a merged “Home and Small Business Server” team with few remaining original team members that created the vision and built WHS v1. The team bleeds small business, it’s in their DNA – they do an awesome job of delivering to that customer, and the thousands of small business partners that sell and support their platforms the world over. But through ignorance or convenience, they’ve done the home server customer and community a huge disservice this week. From the outside, their communication looks poor, their thinking muddled, their engineering sub-standard.

The question now is do they have the desire, the ability and the bravery to fix it?