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Why the Internet is worried that Microsoft’s consumer services are doomed

The question rattled around the Twitterverse this week: Now that Microsoft has unexpectedly shuttered Groove Music Pass, can it be trusted to sustain other consumer products and services?

It’s not an idle question. Every cancelled consumer product—the Zune music player, Windows phones, the Microsoft Band—resurfaces the same angry protest: Doesn’t Microsoft care about consumers?  

If “care” means app development, yes: Both the Zune and Groove Music Pass evolved into reasonably good services, even if few used them. If “care” refers to marketing, though, you already know the answer: In general, no. And if you follow the money—which in this case, comes mostly from Microsoft’s enterprise businesses—that’s most likely the real reason why no Microsoft consumer service can feel completely safe. 

groove music pass Mark Hachman / IDG

Though few people used it, Groove Music Pass was a good, if not great music service, with recommendations and downloadable music. But who knew about it?

When push comes to shove, enterprise wins out

While Microsoft’s first love may have been consumers, its attention quickly turned to businesses. Windows lost its explicit consumer focus after Windows XP, and like two other tentpole products, Skype and OneDrive, it evolved to serve both consumers and businesses. Windows phones—what’s left of them—evolved from consumer products into productivity devices. And Microsoft often ignored consumer marketing—even as Apple took aim at Windows’ hegemony, again and again.

Today, Microsoft sells more to businesses and enterprises than it does to consumers. The emphasis today is on subscriptions and abstract services, rather than on shrinkwrapped products it can put on store shelves. Its watchwords are Microsoft 365, Azure, artificial intelligence and bots, not PCs and phones. So-called “consumer” devices like the Surface are really aimed toward business customers, exceptions like the Surface Laptop nothwithstanding. Still, PC executives questioned Microsoft’s commitment to the Surface line during a business event this week in Venice, Italy.

microsoft band 2 James Niccolai / IDG

Did Microsoft’s Band 2, shown here on display in 2016, die because of Microsoft’s lack of marketing, or just a general decline in fitness bands? Either way, it hasn’t been replaced.

When Microsoft does address consumers, though, the company at times seems almost bipolar, manically throwing 100 albums at consumers for free, than lapsing into a funk where a flagship app is hardly updated for months. For every affordably priced Surface Laptop, a Microsoft Band or Windows phone disappears. Microsoft Stores used to be showcases for the Surface, Windows Phone, and Xbox. Today, filled mostly with partner devices, they’re more like a smaller version of Best Buy. Would anyone be truly surprised if Microsoft Stores were the next to go?

If you’re a Microsoft movies customer, think again

All this has to make you wonder which approach Microsoft will take with its other products and services. We can probably safely agree that “tentpole” products, like Windows, Skype and OneDrive, serve enough business customers that Microsoft will leave them intact. 

Groove Music subscribers may enjoy a smooth transition to Spotify, but it’s unclear whether other services would have it as easy. Purchased MP3 files, even albums, take up relatively tiny amounts of storage space, and Microsoft’s plan to transfer them to Spotify was well thought-out. But how much music have consumers bought from Microsoft? Those hundred albums? More? The vast majority of customers probably never bought more than a few gigabytes’ worth.

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