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Ballmer on snacks and software

What's important to Microsoft's chief executive? Snack food, bugs and software, apparently, according to a memo he sent to the software giant's customers.

    What's important to Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer? Snack food, bugs and software, apparently, according to a memo he sent Wednesday to the company's customers.

    Ballmer's e-mail memo is the second sent by a major Microsoft executive in what Microsoft plans to be an ongoing but periodic practice. Chairman Bill Gates in July sent the first installment, which focused on the company's Trustworthy Computing security initiative.

    Ballmer took a lighter tack, but maintained an undercurrent of seriousness as he expressed concerns about Microsoft remaining responsive to customers.

    Under the heading "Software and Snack Food," Ballmer acknowledged that Microsoft is the second place he has worked. "I marketed brownie mix and blueberry muffin mix for one of the largest consumer products companies," he wrote. "I have great admiration for successful consumer businesses, and I believe Microsoft can learn from them." He noted that consumer businesses spend a great deal of time learning about what their customers "want in cake mix, soft drinks, shampoo, and so on."

    Technology companies have a much harder time getting in touch with their customers because of the complexity of the products and the rapid-fire change of the industry. "We must do a better job of connecting with customers," Ballmer conceded. "For a company such as Microsoft, with many millions of customers around the world, the connections must be very broad."

    To that end, Microsoft has instituted mechanisms for eventually improving customer satisfaction, such as collecting feedback, offering easier ways to update products and more rapid customer support.

    That process is important because there are inherent problems associated with software. "Let's acknowledge a sad truth about software: any code of significant scope and power will have bugs in it," Ballmer wrote. "Even a relatively simple software product today has millions of lines of code that provide many places for bugs to hide."

    This creates an inevitable situation where "customers still encounter bugs despite the rigorous and extensive stress testing and beta testing we do," Ballmer acknowledged. When programs do crash, customers rarely contact customer support, so the company includes error-reporting mechanisms in the software. These tools give customers the option of sending an automatically generated error report back to Microsoft following a crash.

    "There are risks in offering this option to have software 'phone home' like E.T.," Ballmer wrote. "One risk is that error reporting could compound a customer's irritation over the error itself." So the company employs a format 'minidump' to keep down the size of the information sent back to Microsoft.

    The error-reporting tools have helped Microsoft identify problems with its products as well as other Windows products. Microsoft also uncovered a startling statistic. "About 20 percent of the bugs cause 80 percent of all errors, and--this is stunning to me--1 percent of bugs cause half of all errors," Ballmer revealed.

    Microsoft is using the feedback "to prioritize debugging work on our products," Ballmer wrote. For Windows XP Service Pack 1, which Microsoft released last month, the error reporting tool helped resolve 29 percent of the errors related to Windows and about one-third of third-party applications. The error-reporting tool helped identify half the bugs fixed with Office XP Service Pack 2.

    Ballmer also claimed benefits from the error-reporting tools for products in development, such as Visual Studio .Net, which Microsoft released in February. "Error reporting enabled us to log and fix 74 percent of all crashes reported in the first beta version," he wrote. "Many other problems were caught and eliminated in subsequent testing rounds."

    Microsoft has opened the collected information to other companies, which led to a 67 percent drop in errors related to firewall software since Jan. 1, Ballmer wrote.

    Microsoft wants to make some of this collected information available directly to customers, so they can more quickly troubleshoot problems. "We're adding an option for customers to go to a Web site where they can learn more about and even fix the errors they report," Ballmer promised. "In the future we want to enable customers to look up the history of their error reports and our efforts to resolve them."