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What Do You Mean You’re Using It? It’s Only A Demo!

October 9, 2013

(Photo credit: kbslenglishg.wikispaces.com)

Thanks for calling Microsoft support. How can I help you today?

I’m getting an error message when I try to use Outlook Web Access.

When you use what?

You know, the web based client. I’m getting an “unknown user” error when I try to log in.

I’m sorry sir, that’s not actually a Microsoft product.

What do you mean it’s not a Microsoft product? You shipped it in the box!

Yeah, but we didn’t expect people to use it in production. It’s a demo of what you can build on Microsoft Exchange’s application platform.

I don’t really care why you shipped it. My users need to be able to log into Exchange from the web and this product lets them do that. . .mostly. As soon as I get this authentication issue resolved.

The year was 1996 and Microsoft had finally ditched their antiquated MSMail product and released Microsoft Exchange 4.0. There was no Exchange version 1-3. Exchange 4.0 did some very innovative things. It was finally a grown up client/server application. Meaning that it was no longer file based and subject to the flaws of file based email systems. (The Day Batman Almost Got Me Fired.) And it had this whole new application support functionality.

Today, we assume that every email system should be accessible via the Internet. But 1996 was still the age of the dinosaurs.
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(Photo credit: Universal Pictures)
Everything ran as a separate program. And people weren’t really sure this whole “internet” thing was going to take off. (Seriously, there were people who doubted the Internet would survive.) Anyway, one of Microsoft’s biggest competitors was Lotus Notes. What set Notes apart was that programmers could write cool applications for Notes that would combine email and other applications. For example, you could have a program that automatically sent a document to a list of people for approval. Once everyone had approved it, Notes could send it on to the manager. It was all very cutting edge 17 years ago.

So, while building Microsoft Exchange, Microsoft added the ability for customers to write programs that would interact with their email like Notes. However, they were stuck with a chicken and egg problem. How do you get people to write programs for an email system that has no programs written for it? You include some examples. Outlook Web Access was one of those examples. It literally was created by a programmer in his spare time who wanted to see if he could do it. It worked so they included it in the SAMPLES folder.

The problem was that people wanted to actually use it. In support we were not sure what to do. None us knew how to debug an HTML based program. We’d never been trained on it. It turned into a little bit of a PR nightmare. At first we were told,

It’s labeled “Use at your own risk.” We don’t support it.

However, cooler heads soon prevailed and the Exchange Program Managers realized they had stumbled into a valuable new product. They assigned a developer to update it, gave Support some training on it, and updated the feature list on the back of the box.

The important lesson was that customers will tell you what they want if you just listen to them. I’ve seen Program Managers on other products who insisted that customers were using the product wrong. It might not be how they designed it, but it’s how the customers, the paying customers want to use it. Don’t be afraid to let the customers influence your product. They will be pretty blunt about what they want and what they don’t. Today OWA is probably used more than any other client for accessing a mailbox.

Microsoft never did make much of a dent in Notes marketshare.

Rodney M Bliss is an author, columnist and IT Consultant. He lives in Pleasant Grove, UT with his lovely wife and thirteen children.

Follow him on
Twitter (@rodneymbliss)
Facebook (www.facebook.com/rbliss)
LinkedIn (www.LinkedIn.com/in/rbliss)
or contact him at (rbliss at msn dot com)

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