Blog Post

Microsoft Longs For the Golden Age of FUD


So I’ve been unwinding in Vegas the last week (yeah, I know, “unwinding” and “Vegas” do not belong in the same sentence). Now I’m back catching up on my news feeds only to see that Microsoft (s msft) has attempted a return to the good ol’ days.

The Way They Were

Back in those good ol’ days, Microsoft pretty much ruled the tech press and resulting message. They pre-announced products to kill or freeze competition, and sold Bill Gates’ vision as the path to the future. We know now, of course, that the path Mr. Gates saw was one no one ever traveled. Truth is, Microsoft’s last real innovation was when they bundled a suite of apps all designed to work together and called it Office.

The fact is that Microsoft has been a bit toothless of late. Certainly throughout this century. I don’t know if it’s because Apple (s aapl) was on its last legs or what, but Microsoft had managed to pretty much eliminate or frighten everyone, and seemed to be just sitting back. I mean, five years to come out with a new OS? And when Vista finally hit the streets we all saw what a dud it was. That’s more than just incompetence, it’s complacency.

Where Did These Guys Come From?

ballmerMeanwhile, Apple (s aapl) crept up on them rather silently, all the while being derided by Microsoft and their faithful. The iMac was mocked. The iPod was mocked (heck, in some quarters it’s still mocked). iTunes was mocked. Mac OS X was mocked. Safari was mocked. iLife was mocked. And on and on, you get the picture. Steve Ballmer alone could provide a highlight reel of Microsoft mocking Apple, even as history shows he’s been wrong on each count.

So what did Microsoft do? Well, aside from the mocking, they used their classic “big numbers” defense. This is where they remind us that 90 percent of the world uses Windows. There’s nothing wrong with that argument, but it doesn’t mean what Microsoft wants it to mean. It doesn’t translate into Microsoft being correspondingly bigger, or more profitable, or more innovative, or more respected, etc. Seems that a good portion of those 90 percent of Windows boxes are Windows 98 machines sitting in the basement still waiting for mom to put her recipes on. Most of the Windows community doesn’t spend money, so there’s no corresponding ring at the cash register for Microsoft and their partners from that market share discrepancy.

FUD 101

To their credit, Microsoft has finally woken up a bit. To their discredit, they’ve fallen back on the old game plan of the 90s. I have to wonder if it will work this time.

The “old game plan” is simple:

  • Get a new OS in the mix and make sure it cures all the world’s ills
  • Pre-announce or hint at new products to grab press and curb your competition’s momentum
  • Get your tech press writers in high gear
  • Run a new ad campaign

People tend to focus on the last item (it’s the most visible to most people), but it’s the least important strategy of the bunch. I commented on the latest round of ads from Microsoft, and in my opinion their biggest issue is that they simply point out that if you buy a cheap machine, you get a cheap machine. Nothing new here, and nothing wrong with it, but no revelation, either.

No, the real action for Microsoft is in the rest of the campaign, where Microsoft is trying to return to the Golden Age of FUD. Consider all that’s going on lately…

New OS

w7b-desktop1jpg The media blitz on Windows 7 is being laid on so fast and thick it makes your head swim. All they did was clean up Vista and grab a few more ideas from Mac OS X, but to read the Microsoft press you’d think it was a ground-up rewrite. I’m running Windows 7 on my MacBook and it’s a decent improvement over Vista. I have no problem giving Win 7 its due in this regard, but so what? What was Vista ever going to be but a modern — and hopefully more secure — XP anyway?

You’ve got Paul Thurrot heaping praise on Windows Live Essentials despite the fact that the main app is Windows Live Mail, the 8-year-old Outlook Express with a face lift. Wow.

You’ve got Joe Wilcox talking about how fun Windows 7 is. So much so that he’s leaving Mac OS X behind. Double wow.


Does anyone really think we’re going to see a mobile Office on the iPhone anytime soon? When Microsoft dropped these hints I had to laugh. The golden age, indeed. In the old days this may have caused Documents To Go, and other such products, to give pause. That’s not gonna happen now, but for Microsoft old habits die hard.

zunehd_net_engjpg And the new and improved Zune HD (aka the 2008 iPod touch) will of course challenge the iPod’s dominance. No, we really mean it this time. Aside from Thurrott, who’s going to be “all over it,” does anyone believe this?

And of course Windows Mobile 7 will be all touch-based and just like the iPhone. Right.

The Tech Press

This is where Microsoft is strongest. For all of Apple’s recent successes — and getting more press than possibly any time in their history — it’s still nothing compared to what Microsoft can generate simply by scratching themselves. A lot of Apple supporters seem to have forgotten this. Microsoft has legions of followers just standing by, waiting for a press release or spoon-fed “reports” to lend them whatever credibility these individuals can generate.

Microsoft also has a captive and willing audience (I’m looking at you, IT) just begging to be told all their decisions are correct. Some of these people need all the hand-holding and justification they can get.

The tech press is a business, and probably one of Microsoft’s biggest “partners.” The recent “report” by Roger L. Kay is a classic example of Microsoft FUD. I mean, that “report” is your father’s Microsoft. It probably brought a tear to the eye of Steve Ballmer; it’s been a long time since Microsoft whipped up a steaming pile of “report” like that. This thing makes their ridiculous redefinition of security look tame by comparison.

Nothing Stays The Same

The problem is, there are too many channels available to refute information these days. Sure, the Internet was with us in the late 90s, but not like now. Back then one of these “reports” would be seen everywhere, with the opposing viewpoint almost completely drowned out. Nowadays you can’t really get away with that.

For example, I can use this channel to say that the primary thing I got out of Kay’s “report” was that Microsoft says it’s OK for families to pirate their software. After all, there was no up-front software cost for the PC family, and there were also no upgrade costs during the five-year period. One can assume it means Microsoft understands the software will be pirated. This is no big deal, as getting it for free could make it worth what you pay, but it’s a nice allowance by Microsoft nonetheless.

And no, the “report’s” alleged premise that the family in question may already have the Windows software doesn’t fly. If that were true, a similar comparison would be done assuming the family already has Mac software. Besides, it certainly doesn’t explain the lack of upgrade costs. No, the “report” is Microsoft’s way of acknowledging they’d rather you pirate their software for Windows than buy it for the Mac. Why? Because it all feeds into the Microsoft “big numbers” defense.

Let’s face it, when Kay has to defend his “report” by calling its critics “Mac Brownshirts,” isn’t it game over? I mean, can’t Godwin’s Law apply to blogging just as much as to USENET groups?

Tying It All Together

949437_76018425jpgThe bottom line here is the pounding from the press, the ads, the so-called “white papers,” and the unusually excessive fawning (and subsequent Apple-bashing) from all quarters is not a coincidence. There’s a bombardment going on here the likes of which Microsoft hasn’t orchestrated for many years.

I smell Ballmer in all of this. He’s generally been little more than a used car salesman, and this strategy is what he knows. Microsoft wants to go back to when they could just snap their fingers and all you’d see is a constant barrage of their FUD. While it’s true they can still do that — we’ve been seeing it build the last couple months — they can no longer control all the information channels available.

Only time will tell if this major push will have any affect. As I pointed out, I think there are too many alternate channels available to get more accurate information out. Further, there are the Apple Stores so people can actually see the competition for themselves. I think Microsoft may find that they’ve spent hundreds of millions of dollars returning to the Golden Age, only to find it’s rusted.

17 Responses to “Microsoft Longs For the Golden Age of FUD”

  1. Hi Tom

    I know it was a bit provocative, but I actually meant it.
    Every new product, OS and software upgrade for iLife, iWork etc. from Apple is a “revolutionary new …” making everything, even that gadget they released themselves only 5 months ago, completely obsolete. They get everyone, especially me:) , worked up over some small enhancement to the OS/Software/Hardware that 50% never knew they needed and 50% never will use. It’s brilliant, they don’t force it on me or twist my arm..but I want it, why? See 2. and 3.

    2. and 3.
    Ohh Apple is the undisputed master of cloak and daggers, I really don’t believe that the “cellphone pictures from distant asian factories” and the “trusted sources” doesn’t sometimes come directly from Apples top with clear instructions on how to bait the blogosphere. This makes all the “analysts” reading the blogs go ape doo-doo and start praising stuff that nobody ever saw.
    Apple might be all the way up there when it comes to marketing budgets, but they generate at least twice that amount of publicity from the bottom up at 1/100 of the cost. Leading me on to..
    Apple makes mastermind campaigns that goes directly for the heart, cause that is where the money is. MS tried going “You can have a business solution with..bla bla bla” but Apple went “This is so sexy and easy to use that it will definitely rub off on you if you buy it” even though it sounds sinister, it actually shows that Apple knows they are selling stuff to real people, which again rubs of on the way they put together their products. Microsoft still thinks their customers are minions they can boss around. Apple uses this with surgical precision, everything timed around keynotes, WWDC and competitors product releases.

    So that was why I used “subtle and elegant” :) but still claim that the tactics could just as well be Apples.

  2. “I have still yet to see a great list of things Windows 7 can do over windows XP (or even windows 98 for that matter).”

    You could make that same statement for the majority of recent OSes, as they’re all pretty mature. What can you do with Leopard that you couldn’t do with OS X 10.0, really? I mean, sure, there are lots of little things, lots of new products and features, but is there a fundamental difference between the functionality of the two operating systems? I don’t think so.

    Also, are you familiar enough with Windows to know what’s in it? Not a slam, but a genuine question, because I’ve noticed that people on both sides of the Mac/PC divide seem terribly well aware of the benefits of their chosen platform, but only aware of the faults of the other.

    • Having owned a PC for the last seven years, I recently purchased a Macbook. I have in that time period ran four versions of Windows, including Windows 7 RC1, & various distros of Linux on my PCs. PC owners beware that when Microsoft puts out a new system, if you choose to upgrade, you will find that you will have issues with both drivers & software. Old programs won’t install or run as they did on XP. One reason I got a Mac is better support for old software, whether installing an OS natively, or through virtualization.
      Mac OS X can boot from an external drive, Windows won’t.
      Mac OS X, is more secure than Windows, because it is based on UNIX. Microsoft can brag about 90% of the world’s computers running Windows, but they don’t tell you that 100% of the malware on the web is written for Windows.
      I recently upgraded the Macbook to Snow Leopard, it’s the first time I have seen an OS report a hard drive at the same capacity as stated. My 128 GB SATA SSD shows up as a 128 GB drive instead of 119 GB.
      Upgrading OS X gives you more space, upgrading Windows doesn’t. All the apps that came with Leopard installed with no problem. Apple is clearly superior in terms of efficiency & backward compatability than any PC.
      As to Microsoft FUD, my response is this: The next time I see Steve Ballmer preaching it, I’ll picture him as Elmer Fudd, except instead of hunting ” that wascally wabbit” He will be confused as to whether it’s apple season or penguin season.

  3. Even Office wasn’t innovative. Ashton-Tate’s Framework beat it to the streets by years and had the simplicity of DOS and smooth communication between modules.

    They just didn’t have the smarts to port to Windows or Apple’s OS. Left behind when everyone else moved on from DOS.

  4. Perhaps the good old days were the good old days for Microsoft because they had the best stuff. Sure, everybody was bitching about windows 98 being unstable and all that, but those people were using it all the same. What has changed since then, is not that microsoft no longer controls all journalists (they never did, if you disagree then please back it up), it is that those journalists have other platforms to talk about.

  5. “I’d be curious to know what your take on Apple’s OS cycle is”

    Just to chip in my take on this…

    Firstly OS X and XP came out about the same time. OS X has had 4 major paid updates (10.1 was free upgrade) Windows has had 1. Now I would say 10.0/1 were not a great OS’s, it did not come into it’s own until 10.3.

    So if you take how much OS X has changed since 2001 and how much it’s improved and compare that to how much Windows has improved since 2001 then Apple has come the furthest.

    The big difference seem to be OS X has advanced with harmony while Windows has fragmented. How many version of Windows has there been since the first version of XP? But OS X has made each version a bit better without sacrificing features.

    10.2 was mainly software improvements/additions and generally making the whole thing better.
    10.3 brought a more refined UI, fast user switching, Exposé and Safari.
    10.4 Spotlight, Dashboard, Smart Folders
    10.5 Time Machine, Spaces, quick view

    While brining all these new features and more Apple also worked on converting the whole OS and all the software to be 64 bit while keeping 32 bit apps running ok and supporting Intel and PowerPC chipsets.

    I have still yet to see a great list of things Windows 7 can do over windows XP (or even windows 98 for that matter). To me it still seems to be the registry based windows of old with lots of patches… And it still can’t read an OS X formatted drive out of the box!

  6. Ricki,

    Apple’s primary claim to fame (and source of annoyance to most tech writers and analysts) is their secrecy. I don’t understand how you can say that steps 1 and 2 in the FUD steps are part of their tactics at all. They are not. Apple has let information out about Snow Leopard of course, but has done so slowly, and is rumored to be hiding plenty. They are notorious for this.

    As for pre-announcing products, you can’t be serious. That’s normally the exact opposite of Apple’s strategies.

  7. Brian,

    For the most part, I think OS X has been evolutionary as well. (Well, pretty much since 10.2.) That MAY not be true of Snow Leopard, as it appears they’re working a lot deeper under the surface, but that remains to be seen.

    Understand I have no issue with Windows 7 being a nice evolution to Vista. In fact, I said as much. But all Vista — as opposed to Longhorn before it — was supposed to be was a modern and more secure XP. If Win7 gets Vista “right”, that’s STILL all it is.

    I am not against a concentrated ad campaign, but I believe a boatload of it is FUD spread by a willing (or ignorant) press. MS can still get the presses rolling like no company can. Not even close.

  8. 1.Get a new OS in the mix and make sure it cures all the world’s ills
    2.Pre-announce or hint at new products to grab press and curb your competition’s momentum
    3.Get your tech press writers in high gear
    4.A new ad campaign

    Im a bit slow, was the above bullets Apple’s or Microsoft’s strategy ;)

    Sorry but it does look a bit like Apple’s tactics, they just carry them out much more elegant and subtle… i.e. not using a fat bald man screaming and shaking his fist at the moon.

  9. I think the Apple iteration model works well as it is constantly reinforcing and building on what seems to be a quality product.

    With Microsoft they always feel the need to throw their old products away to the point where they almost rubbish them in order to promote there new system.

    Apples system of progressive refinement, at a vastly more reasonable price with far less confusing version options is easer for me to stomach. It also gives the impression that they have respect for their own product whereas Microsoft dump their current OS the minute a new one is on the horizon and expect you to upgrade your computer and shell out a couple of hundred pounds for the privilege of using it.

  10. Microsoft’s 90% market share comes largely from big corporate users, who have tens of thousands of PCs on managed internal networks, all using the same version of WinXP, users all using Office, programmers all using Visual Studio. I’m happy with my iMac, I think OS X is terrific– but Apple doesn’t have anything that competes with Microsoft in this market.

  11. Hey Tom,

    At the risk of becoming that guy who only posts critical comments, I’m back. I found what you wrote here to be interesting:

    “All they did was cleanup Vista and grab a few more ideas from Mac OS X, but to read the Microsoft press you’d think it was a ground-up rewrite.”

    I’d be curious to know what your take on Apple’s OS cycle is; do you see it as the same thing, or something different? There are new features between each iteration of OS X, for example, but it’s just iteration.

    I find it interesting that MS is getting criticized for simply labeling Vista 2.0 (essentially) as a new product, when they’re showing much greater advertising acumen by stepping away from the brand name recognition that Vista has. And don’t a lot of people criticize MS for not understanding advertising? (Not saying that you’re doing this, but it’s something I’ve noticed)

    I’m curious to know, also, why you’re against a concentrated ad campaign. Is it Microsoft, or is it just in principle? If Apple were doing a large scale bit of advertising like this, would it seem as egregious to you?