The critical mistake of assuming too much

Written by David Tebbutt, PC Dealer 01/88 item 01 - scanned

One of the best pieces of advice I have ever been given was 'never assume'. Taken too far, the advice is useless. After all, you have to assume that when you press the brake pedal, your car will slow down, or that the office will still be there when you get to work. However, the advice really comes into its own when other people are involved. A motto such as 'never assume your car will work better after a service' can help avoid a lot of disappointment. Never assume that programmers know what they're talking about when they estimate completion dates. They probably tell you what they think you want to hear, just to get rid of you.

So why am I wittering about assumptions? Because someone in a major software company recently made an assumption about the perceptions of the computer press- reading public. If his assumption is wrong - and I think it is - then he has damaged the name and reputation of his company, which has taken over 10 years to establish. This company put an insert in a number of publications, in the guise of an eight page word processor evaluation report produced by a certain Richard Cotler, office systems manager of West Engineering. It comes in a marbled blue cover and looks like the real thing, apart from an advertisement inside the rear cover.

The report covers six packages: Display write 4, Lotus Manuscript, Microsoft Word 4, Multimate, Advantage 11, Word Perfect 4.2 and Wordstar Professional 4. If I say that the recommendations give six reasons to buy Word version 4, you will probably guess that Microsoft placed this ill-conceived piece of advertising. Our industry hasn't got a particularly good image, although I think we've made huge strides over the past couple of years to clean it up. And Microsoft is one of the companies which has done much to present itself as a professional organisation. It has been so successful in this that IBM is willing to be seen as its partner. What a surprise then, when this company appears to be trying to hoodwink the public with its reprints of an apparently genuine report. Whoever cooked up this idea has let the side down. Not just for Microsoft, but for the whole industry. The feelings I have about this enterprise are not all that different to those I felt when manufacturers were taking customers' money with no delivery date in sight.

So what's this got to do with assumptions? Well, the perpetrator of this promotional exercise told me that he 'assumed' that everyone would realise that the report was a spoof because it dropped out of a magazine and because it contained a Microsoft advertisement. I've got news for him, just in case it hasn't sunk in already. The public is quite used to seeing reprints and genuine citations in promotional literature. It will do its share of assuming too. The readers will assume that the document is a reprint of a genuine report, especially since it stamps 'West Engineering plc' on every page, signs it 'Richard Cotler, office systems manager' at the end and doesn't include any sort of small print to indicate the report is fake. And, anyway, no reputable company would ever try to hoodwink its public in this way, would it? Well, Microsoft did, and I think it's a sad day for the industry.

I called three of the manufacturers cited and they all claim that the report contains serious errors. If that's true, then that's another good reason to condemn this piece of literature. But they're big enough to take care of themselves. It's the public I'm concerned about. The bottom line is that we have a responsibility to our public to play fair. It's no good hiding behind a defence of 'I assumed they would realise. . .'. That's simply not good enough.

This was published 20/1/88. The following news story appeared two weeks later.

Microsoft marketing manager Mark Plant has departed in the wake of a storm of protest after the company's recent advertising stunt for the Word 4.0 word processing package backfired. Plant's hasty departure from Microsoft followed an apology by the company for a spoof corporate report, extolling the virtues of Word 4 and lambasting rival products. Microsoft admitted that the report, allegedly produced by a company called Western Engineering and distributed by the trade press as a brochure, had been written by Microsoft.

Microsoft UK managing director David Svendsen said a replacement for Plant has not yet been appointed. But Microsoft has recruited Ashton-Tate product manager Shaun Orpen to join the company as a product manager. Svendsen denied that Plant had been forced to leave the company two weeks ago because of the marketing blunder. 'Mark resigned for all sorts of positive reasons. He has other opportunities he wants to realise,' Svendsen said. He refused to elaborate on the reasons for Plant's departure: 'That's between Mark and the company.'

Ray Mgadzah.