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?
Meanwhile, 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.
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…
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.
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.
Tying It All Together
The 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.