Foley on Microsoft

Microsoft Leaks Like a Sieve

The company tries to plug the information drain after Gates' departure.

As a longtime chronicler of all things Microsoft, I've benefited from numerous "leaks." One of my most hard-hitting stories -- about the 63,000 bugs Microsoft admitted that Windows 2000 had left in it when it shipped -- was based on a leak. So was a piece I did on the "Longhorn Reset" that Microsoft was trying to save for another news organization that agreed to present the information the way Microsoft wanted it delivered. So, too, was a recent blog post I did on Microsoft's plan to eliminate phone numbers via a new services platform code-named "Echoes."

"Leaks" is a term bandied about by journalists, public relations folks and others in the news business. Given the increasingly liberal use of the word in articles, blog posts and other forms of communication, it seems high time to shed some light on what leaks are, why they happen and what purpose they're meant to serve.

A leak refers to information accidentally shared by an individual or company, but it also can refer to conscious information planted for a specific purpose. Sometimes it's tough to tell -- or at least to prove -- the difference. There was a report, for example, about Microsoft allegedly becoming re-interested in bidding for all of Yahoo! -- which just so happened to leak as Yahoo! execs were about to go out on a tour to fight a hostile takeover bid by Carl Icahn for the company. Yahoo!'s stock price, which had been plummeting since talks with Microsoft broke off and many of its executives bailed, suddenly rose. Leak? Yes. Planted? Wouldn't surprise me at all.

A PR contact of mine shared a list of five main reasons for leaking information about the tech business:

  1. To kill something like a deal, a product or a person's career.
  2. To field a trial balloon about a new product, price or idea.
  3. Ego: "I'm so connected and clued in, I even know about this."
  4. Stupidity: "Oops ... that was under non-disclosure?"
  5. The plain-old good luck of sitting on a plane, train or corporate shuttle next to a blabbermouth.

Whenever I get a tip, the first thing I weigh is why someone shared a particular piece of information with me. What was the source's motivation? Over the years, I've gotten some incredibly damaging tips about Microsoft products, people and technologies from folks who work for Microsoft. Sometimes, they were disgruntled employees who wanted to hurt a former boss or rival, or they were folks about to quit or be forced out. I've even received leaks from a person who felt spurned because their affections weren't returned.

I've stumbled onto blog posts by 'Softies and others in the Microsoft community where someone shared information that they weren't supposed to share. Sometimes leaks were passed on to me by folks who were angry because Microsoft did -- or didn't -- buy their companies. Other times, partners and customers who were upset about a Microsoft pricing decision or the 'Softies reneging on a promise retaliated with a leak.

As an aside, some Microsoft employees, customers and partners claim that those of us who receive leaks via various means are the "leakers." I've been accused of spoiling a product launch or pre-announcing someone's firing or resignation by my decision to leak it. The distinction may seem trivial, but it's important. I report on leaks I receive. I don't leak information about Microsoft myself. If I did, I suspect I could be strung up for insider trading.

Under the new, post-Gatesian Microsoft regime, Microsoft is trying to plug leaks about its products -- especially Windows and Windows Live. It hopes to become more like Apple and benefit from the "Big Reveal" when officials are finally ready to talk. But because Microsoft has chosen to rely so heavily on customers and partners for feedback during development -- and created more potential leakers in the process -- I think its leak-elimination quest is rather futile.

What's your take? Are leaks an unavoidable fact in the Microsoft world? Have you been a leaker, or on the wrong side of a leaky information dam?

About the Author

Mary Jo Foley is editor of the ZDNet "All About Microsoft" blog and has been covering Microsoft for about two decades. She has a new book out, Microsoft 2.0 (John Wiley & Sons, May 2008), about what's next for Microsoft in the post-Gates era.

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