No harm, no foul: Windows 8 hasn't harmed Microsoft's software satisfaction score

Score bounces back from 2013 downturn

Customer satisfaction with Microsoft's software -- primarily Windows, but also Office -- climbed slightly in the last year, illustrating that whatever misgivings customers have over Windows 8 has not reached the level of frustration seen years ago with the widely-ridiculed Windows Vista, a national survey said today.

Microsoft scored 75 points, up a point from last year, in the newest poll conducted by the American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI), a consumer survey started by the University of Michigan.

Microsoft's score, which ACSI has tracked since 2006, was back where it was in 2012, although still three points lower than its all-time high of 78 in 2011, when Windows 7 was at the peak of popularity.

On the bright side, this year's score was six points higher than the record low of 69 in 2008, when ACSI attributed the poor polling results to customers' disgust with Vista, the 2007 operating system typically judged a huge flop in the marketplace.

Last year, when Microsoft's score dropped a point, David VanAmburg, managing director of ACSI, said it was too early to blame Windows 8, the OS that came out the gate in October 2012 to a rocky reception from reviewers and pundits. Instead, VanAmburg said last year to wait: If the score flattened or fell another point or two, then it would be fair to indict Windows 8.

That didn't happen.

"Windows 8 doesn't seem to be anything of great concern to consumers," said VanAmburg in an interview today. "Windows 8 is still behind the numbers during Windows 7's time three years ago, but there's not much evidence that it's dragging Microsoft down."

Many observers have disagreed, citing customer confusion over Windows 8's dual user interfaces (UIs) and its over-emphasis on touch, then linking those criticisms to the slow-down in PC sales.

"Windows 8 doesn't seem to be the drag that Vista was, but on the other hand, it doesn't have the 'wow' factor that Windows 7 had," VanAmburg countered.

Microsoft's latest satisfaction score lagged behind the average for all computer software, which was 76, and a separate category of "All Others." That category represents a bucket of major vendors like Intuit, Adobe and major antivirus vendors -- about the only software makers with a large enough user base to be credible subjects of ACSI's survey -- that scored 77, one point higher than 2013. Like the Microsoft score, All Others rebounded to the level of 2012, but remained several points below its high-water year of 2011.

"The stability of [the 'Computer Software' category, with its score of 76] clearly shows that traditional software has lost some of its luster," said VanAmburg. "People increasingly own multiple mobile devices, phones and tablets, where there are gigantic app stores. Consumers are amazed at the high quality of those mobile apps and their low prices, and in turn that makes traditional computer software, which costs $30, $40, $50 or more, seem to pale in comparison.

"Computer software is not the future, and not where things are going to be," VanAmburg added.

He also said that the decline in PC sales, more accurately, the reason why PC sales have slumped, contributed to the more-or-less stable scores of Microsoft and All Others over the last three years.

"Part of the lack of an improvement in the scores is a result of people spending less time on traditional devices," VanAmburg said. "Frankly, the technology is pushing us in that direction. More people are cutting the cord by going mobile. And I don't see that changing. It's part of the continuing evolution in technology from bigger, bulkier machines to smaller, more mobile devices."

It may not be a coincidence that "Peak PC," the year when personal computer shipments crested, was 2011 -- the same year that saw the highest satisfaction scores for all three software categories measured by ACSI.

The ACSI survey scores were based on polls of more than 12,000 Americans between Jan. 13 and March 11.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed. His email address is gkeizer@computerworld.com.

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