For Microsoft, 'Meh'-quality customer satisfaction improvement may be a big win

Keeping pace with the industry is an accomplishment when you're losing ground otherwise

A new customer survey shows mixed results for Microsoft: At a time customers are abandoning it to a greater degree than at any time in its history, they're also rating their satisfaction level with Microsoft at an all-time high.

According to a survey from the University of Michigan called the American Customer Satisfaction Index, Microsoft scored 79 points out of 100 on a rating of overall satisfaction – a 7 percent gain compared to last year.

That's an excellent result, considering the most major customer-satisfaction survey – the one people answer with money – isn't rating Microsoft so well.

Microsoft's dominance in operating systems is eroding as virtualization, iOS and Android take off. Its dominance in office software is being subsumed by SAAS apps, open-source and third-party software. Its subscription-renewal model of software sales is also in danger as customers choose apps from competing SAAS, open-source, cloud and virtualization vendors.

Worse, Apple, which Microsoft crushed and then had to revive several times to avoid looking too much like a monopoly, is at a higher point than it has ever been, driven by the strength of its iPhone, iPod and iPad product lines – against which Microsoft can post no good alternative.

So what does it mean that Microsoft's satisfaction ratings rose quite a lot between last year and this?

It means people have either forgiven Microsoft for inflicting Vista on them, or that they're getting past it by migrating to Windows 7 which, like nearly every other major OS ever created, is less annoying than Vista.

Study director David VanAmburg warns about reading too much even into that.

Microsoft's degree of improvement is about the same as the software industry as a whole, he told Computerworld.

"So Microsoft is just keeping pace with a growing sense of satisfaction in software," VanAmburg said.

Not everyone, though. AT&T, T-Mobile, Nokia and DISH Networks, among the IT-related companies, all saw big drops in satisfaction.

So, even if VanAmburg's estimation doesn't sound like a ringing endorsement of Microsoft, consider the context:

Revenue from Windows dropped 4 percent during Microsoft's most recently reported quarter, which is largely explained by a drop in the number of PCs sold during 2009 and 2010 – when the survey was taken.

Given that and the very vast, very fundamental changes being made by smart mobile computing, cloud computing, virtualization and consumerization – for Microsoft keeping up with the progress of the rest of the industry is something of an accomplishment.

Not the kind you'd brag about if you were a Master of the Universe when Microsoft really was Master of the Universe, of course.

But you have to take good news where you can get it.

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