For those unaware, Microsoft makes a lot of products. Some are pretty successful, others not so much, but all work together, especially with the advent of their new Modern UI and new releases of Windows and Windows Phone. Amongst those who know the ecosystem best, Microsoft promotes “MVPs”, or Most Valuable Professionals, to evangelize their products. A few years back, I wrote for Zune MVP Marques Lyons’ site Inside The Circle, which made sense considering my passion for the player, but he’s since retired the site to focus on his newest creation: Consumer Camp, a nationwide tour of sorts in which Microsoft MVPs converge on your nearest Microsoft Store to meet with the masses. Recently, I had the opportunity to chat with Marques about Consumer Camp and his thoughts on Microsoft’s new direction in general.
FleshEatingZipper: What is Consumer Camp?
Marques Lyons: Consumer Camp is a program in which Microsoft MVPs are empowered by Microsoft to go into, currently, Microsoft Stores and educate customers. People can be overwhelmed by these new products, Windows 8, Windows Phone, Office, Xbox, you name it, but being able to show customers how to tap into the potential of these services, they may find they can better balance their work life and their professional life, they can be more productive and find more ways to be entertained. Because MVPs are getting feedback from the community, they’re able to give that directly to Microsoft to improve the products. It’s a win-win for pretty much everyone.
FEZ: How did Consumer Camp get started?
ML: Back when there was a thing called Microsoft Zune-
FEZ: Right, I remember that.
ML: Yeah. One of the things I noticed was that there were a lot of misconceptions about what Zune was. People knew it was an iPod/iTunes competitor, but they didn’t understand why it was a unique thing. Around this time, Microsoft was rolling out their stores and they were planning to have workshops to educate on whatever new product was coming out at the time, like Windows or Office, and I thought ‘well, maybe I can go into my Microsoft Store and give a one hour workshop about Zune, show people what makes it special, show off the player’, so on. Then I thought about how other MVPs might want to participate, but didn’t have the venue to do it in. So I decided to put this together so we could tell customers ‘hey, show up on this date at this time and you can learn about Office or Xbox.’ So from there, it grew into this structured set of workshops where you can learn and give feedback – have a dialogue instead of just being talked to.
It grew over time. Originally, the very first one was just a very long meetup. I wasn’t sure how to put it together and I wasn’t sure who was going to show up or who would see the potential in it. Now, we send out advertisements – and we don’t call them workshops, they’re classrooms – and, say, an Office MVP will come into the theater, set up a presentation and people will come in either by the advertisements or just by in-store traffic. They’ll learn, in-depth, how Office works, how to build a PowerPoint, that sort of thing. The class will take a few hours and that’s plenty of time to say how things could be improved and give tips. The MVPs will talk about what’s going on in their community and at the end there may be a giveaway. These are usually two-hour events.
FEZ: What kind of support does Microsoft give you as far as logistics, dollars, support, marketing?
ML: It depends. When I was doing Zune classes, Microsoft had an official blog and podcast for it, so it was easy to get the word around. Now what I tend to do is find people within Microsoft and ask, ‘hey, is there any way you can put this on you product team’s blog or through your social channels?’ Right now, there’s not a lot of publicity to speak of, but as time goes on, more product teams are picking up the word and it’s growing that way.
FEZ: How many MVPs will show up for one of these events?
ML: Again, it depends on what the kind of event and which MVPs are available. An Xbox workshop taking place in SoCal will have more MVPs show up than, say, one in North Dakota. With this upcoming Consumer Camp in Bellevue [Near Microsoft’s main campus, which took place while prepping the article. -Ed], there’s a higher amount of MVPs than what would usually be available. Rather than a bunch of classes, it was more of a dialogue between the MVPs and the crowd. On a normal basis though, there may be two or three MVPs of a particular topic engaging the crowd.
FEZ: Which Microsoft products do you use on a regular basis?
ML: I tried to retire my Zune HD to take advantage of the Xbox Music/Cloud collection stuff on Windows Phone. I like the idea of having one device do everything, but with a phone, there’s always an issue with battery and storage. I have a Surface RT, which is a cool device and while there are some limitations because it can’t run desktop apps, I learned to look past that because I realized there were only a few I ever used and with Office included, it does everything I want it to do. My home desktop runs Windows 8. I have an Xbox. I’m pretty much everywhere Microsoft’s consumer products are.
FEZ: Do you use SmartGlass?
ML: I use it mostly for Music. I think the UI is useful because when something is playing on my Xbox, it’s recommending six or seven different artists on my phone. I like that kind of interaction. I think there’s a lot more to be done as far as videos and games are concerned, but I think they’ve got a good foothold on what they want to do.
FEZ: When you’re in the store, what products or services do people really latch onto? I imagine Kinect is still pretty popular.
ML: From my own experience, people were amazed about Kinect’s voice commands and I would show them that the Xbox wasn’t just a thing you could play Gears of War on, so I’d show them the ESPN app or Netflix, so on. Now I demonstrate SmartGlass and they think it’s nice that it allows them to interact with what’s going on on the screen, rather than being this passive entertainment. When, say, music is playing on the screen and they pick up a tablet and things are changing on the screen, they really get into that.
FEZ: So on the flip side, which Microsoft products or services are the hardest to explain? Is there some confusion around Windows RT and Windows 8?
ML: Not really. When you break it down, the main difference between the two is that with Windows RT, desktop apps like Photoshop aren’t going to work with it and that all of the apps for it are going to come out of the Windows Store. When they see that, they understand. The most difficult one to explain without demonstrating it was, actually, SmartGlass. When you say ‘oh, this tablet is gonna start doing stuff’, they go ‘oh, okay’ and it doesn’t really click. The advantage of Consumer Camp is that you have all these products available to demonstrate. For more visual learners, it clicks when you start a movie on the tablet and move it to your TV.
FEZ: Microsoft’s ecosystem has changed a lot in the past few years. Zune is gone, Windows 8 is here, Xbox is their only surefire deal right now. Do you think things are getting easier or more difficult for Microsoft?
ML: I think we’re on the onset of a rough patch. What they’re shooting for is more commonality between all of their services. Old Microsoft was a piecemeal deal: you’d have Windows Mobile over here, you’d have an Xbox thing over here, a music thing with Zune way over here, y’know, little clusters of stuff. Now when you see the common interface from far away, you know it’s a Microsoft product, but in order for people to really latch on, there’ll be this rough patch as people readjust or are retrained for it. I think Microsoft’s going down a really good road with this, because I like the idea that any device I pick up will work with any device I already own, that’s my perfect utopia, and they’re gonna take a few bumps and bruises to get there.
FEZ: Do you see Microsoft taking Consumer Camp onto their own?
ML: Would I like to see that? Sure. I think Microsoft does really well if you’re an app developer, programmer, or IT professional because there are Programmer Camps, Dev Camps, workshops and conferences all over the place. I think they need to just as much for the average consumer. Someone goes into a store and they need a computer, they say ‘I heard you have this new Windows thing, but I don’t know how this integrates with my family or my life. What’s the point?’ Or, Mom and Dad bring their kids in the store and the kids want to see the Xbox, but the parents go ‘no, you already have a gaming thing, you don’t even use that’. But when you open their eyes to ESPN or SmartGlass, you really show the value of platform like the Xbox. I really think Microsoft needs to show off what these products do, the ones they spend so long making. They have plenty of brain power with Microsoft MVPs that spend 365 days a year in the depths of this stuff, so why not use them officially?
FEZ: Now as a former Zune MVP, what do you think about their migration to Xbox Music? Personally, I thought it was irritating that they removed features like the Social. Do they build on that? Do they keep it casual?
ML: I hear you and it’s something that I’ve been grappling with, too. Frankly, I understand they want Xbox Music to be this one-all, be-all solution for everything and if they can get it to work, that would be fantastic, but it’s a step back from what Zune was. It amazes me that Zune comes out in 2006 and they build up all these features, like the Social or their fantastic software and the way it connected it to you other people. All of that was really good. Then Xbox Music comes out and it feels like version 1.0 again instead of taking Zune and porting it over. So many features are broken. You can’t really music match your collection. It can’t really transfer music adequately to the Cloud collection. You can build a playlist on Xbox, but not all the songs appear on your Windows Phone. There’s no podcast directory. When you’re an Xbox MVP and trying to show off the value of Xbox Music, it’s difficult when so much of it doesn’t work. I hope they fix these, especially since more people are using these services than when Zune was around.
FEZ: Where can people learn more about Consumer Camp?
ML: You can find information at ConsumerCamp.net, on Facebook and on Twitter. There are so many sites out there that talk about these products and services and we want to be that direct line to educate customers with good, quality information and be able to receive feed feedback. My goal with Consumer Camp was to separate the meat from the sizzle, to really push out the fluff.
FEZ: Thanks for chatting with us!