Microsoft’s Geopolitical Bug Experts

REDMOND, Wash., Dec. 6, 2000 — Like thousands of Microsoft employees, Tom Edwards and his team spend their days ensuring that the company’s products are bug-free — but the bugs they find aren’t the kind that can crash software or create security issues.

Edwards heads up Microsoft’s Geopolitical Product Strategy team, a group formed to help the company understand and address the geopolitical issues in its products — an increasingly critical function for a company whose products are distributed in more than 60 countries outside the United States and increasingly make use of maps, country/region lists, scenarios and artwork that touch on sensitive international issues.

While a misaligned flag or a badly drawn border in a seemingly remote region might easily happen due to a minor oversight by a software developer, those errors are potentially serious issues in that country — issues that could impact the company’s business.
“These are critical issues for us because we want to do the right thing for our customers, and also because some governments have very strict laws about how their geography is described or displayed on maps,”
Edwards says.
“In some situations, they’re so strict that violating these laws has serious consequences –products could be banned in that country.”

The GPS team is also charged with ensuring that the company’s products properly represent its global customers’ views of the world. Diana Pallais, a GPS team member with a doctorate in International Relations, cites an issue that doesn’t violate any laws, yet still threatens to alienate customers in an important region:
“We learned from one of our Mexican employees that many Web sites refer to Mexico as part of Central America, which is geographically inaccurate. Mexico is part of North America. So if you’re a Mexican consumer being told that you’re part of Central America, you might see that as inherent discrimination. It touches on something that’s very delicate for Mexicans. Nobody’s going to land in jail for making mistakes like that, but it sends the wrong message.”

In most cases, the GPS team resolves issues like these by keeping pace with global developments and maintaining a comprehensive knowledge base of the proper ways to name and describe sensitive places. The team strives to maintain neutrality and avoid creating a context in which political inferences could be drawn from its products. For example, the team encourages the use of
“country/region lists”
and
“capital/major city lists”
as an alternative to
“country”
and
“capital”
lists, to avoid being seen as
“taking a stand”
on sovereignty issues.

The team also provides background information and guidelines on how to portray sensitive areas, and keeps product groups abreast of the laws that affect their product’s content in a particular region. With extremely sensitive issues where a neutral compromise is impossible, the team will recommend not distributing certain products in sensitive regions, or creating a separate version for the region if the expense is justified.

The need for the software industry to pay attention to these issues became clearer after a minor issue with Windows 95 threatened to create a serious problem for Microsoft’s business in India. When users upgraded to Windows 95 for the first time, they were asked to choose their time zone by clicking on an image of their country or choosing it from a menu. When users in India clicked on their country, they noticed that their borders did not include Jammu and Kashmir, a highly disputed region in central Asia claimed by India, Pakistan and China. Although this was a minor oversight on the part of the product group, which used United Nations maps not officially recognized by India, the Indian government was extremely upset that the region had been omitted and demanded that the problem be fixed before Windows 95 could be distributed in India.

“Had we been around at the time, we could easily have said, ‘Get rid of it. You’re going to run into problems,'”
Edwards says.
“If you’re chiefly a cartographic company like National Geographic or Rand McNally, you know very well that this is an issue: You cannot sell a product in India that doesn’t show all of Kashmir as Indian territory. It’s a business requirement of selling maps in India. People say it’s slanted toward the Indian point of view, but that’s what the government requires in order to distribute that type of content in their market.”

“In many countries, the government is our number one customer,”
says Diana Pallais
“They’re major players in their economies, they’re our allies on key issues such as taxation and anti-piracy campaigns, and sometimes they’re the only way we can reach our customers in that country. So we have to take them very seriously.”

“Our job is to increase awareness of geopolitical issues, to help product groups identify and address these issues, and to act as a”
corporate memory
“when these things happen, so they don’t happen again,”
Edwards says.

“Microsoft is a company with tens of thousands of employees, all over the world, all with different backgrounds,”
he continues.

People don’t necessarily have negative biases, but they do have a unique view of the world based on their education, their upbringing, or even what they see in the news. And things that aren’t very important to them can be important to people in other countries — and very important for Microsoft’s business around the world. A big part of our job is to increase awareness of this fact.”

Glenn Kelly, another GPS team member, agrees.
“When we make international products, there are two contexts that come into conflict — a global perception of the world and a local perception of the world. When these conflicts occur, we jump in and ensure that our products are appreciative of both contexts.”

Over the long term, the team is working to ensure that Microsoft’s product groups take geopolitical bugs as seriously as any other bugs, and that potential issues are resolved as early as possible in the development process through education and awareness.

“Basically, it’s a prerequisite to doing global business in local markets, and a lot of companies are struggling to understand that,”
Pallais says.
“We don’t have a 100 percent handle on it and we never will, because cultures will always change and opinions will always differ no matter where you go. The key is to understand that these differences exist and do our best to address them.”