Microsoft’s Bad Image Should Be a Warning to Apple

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“I’m just wondering why your marketing group can’t do something to try to rein in this next generation, because you’ve got a real bad image out there.”

So said a Microsoft shareholder to CEO Steve Ballmer at the company’s shareholder meeting yesterday. TechFlash reporter Todd Bishop notes that the same shareholder added that Apple’s TV commercials make Microsoft look “like a buffoon.”

I’m relieved to hear this. I often look at Microsoft and wonder if its shareholders are as out-of-touch as the company itself seems to be. In just the last few weeks here’s what’s getting the most enthusiastic coverage in the tech press at a time when it ought to be 100 percent about the newly launched Windows 7.

  • A Microsoft manager claiming Windows 7 — Microsoft’s flagship product — is inspired by Mac OS X
  • Chief Software Architect Ray Ozzie’s bewildering assertion that “apps don’t matter” — despite everyone else on Earth knowing otherwise
  • Further redundancies that include long-time evangelist Don Dodge, and his subsequent post that, now that he’s free from Microsoft, he can admit, yeah, he has iPhone envy
  • And let’s not forget the bizarre PR misfire that saw the staff of Microsoft’s flagship retail store ignoring their customers for a full five minutes in favor of stomping their way, awkwardly and embarrassingly, through a dance routine

The take-home message? It ain’t just the Apple commercials making Microsoft look like buffoons.

How did CEO Steve Ballmer respond? Fear not, anxious shareholders, Ballmer has this to say to assuage your fears and calm your nerves:

You take any country, including this one, and you say, how are we doing? The truth of the matter is, we do quite well. Even among college students, we do quite well. Do we have an opportunity for improvement? We do. Some of that is marketing some of that is phase of life. It is important to remember that 96 times out of 100 worldwide, people choose a PC with Windows, that’s a good thing. Even in the toughest market, which would be the high end of the consumer market here in the U.S., 83 times out of 100 people choose a Windows PC over a Mac.

Hang on, back-up. “Some of that is phase of life.” Phase of life? Well, Ballmer sure knows his execu-speak. What galls me about this is how it illustrates perfectly that while Microsoft may be doomed to continue making embarrassing mistakes, it probably won’t suffer any actual harm as a result; it survives simply because of its mammoth install base. Nothing more than that. And that simple fact directly influences the attitude and reasoning of its CEO. Ballmer is tacitly admitting that, all things considered, yeah, Microsoft looks like a bunch of idiots but that doesn’t matter because they’ve got more customers than anyone else.

Turn this around, and imagine that Apple does monumentally silly things that make it the target of much derision and ridicule among the tech community and consumers. Imagine you’re a shareholder, and you see a drop in quarterly earnings. You see the company laying off staff (including highly visible and respected staff they should keep). You see its executives sending conflicting messages to the public. And when you take them to task for it, Steve Jobs replies “Yeah, we’ve been a bit crap. But most people own an iPod, right, so, no worries.” Would you be satisfied with that?

Ballmer added:

Frankly, the economy is good for us, because people do understand that Macintoshes are quite a bit more expensive for essentially the same computer … we have opportunities to improve among exactly the constituency that you identify.

Yep. Be happy there’s a recession, people, or else customers would be buying Macs!

This isn’t actually a Microsoft bashing exercise (clearly, it does that to itself and needs no help from me). Instead, I look at this and wonder (fear) that Apple might be headed in much the same direction. Recent unpredictable behavior around the application approval process has seen Apple severely criticised by some of its most staunch supporters. Developers aren’t just frustrated, they’re now quitting the platform altogether. And not because the platform is flawed, but because Apple is horribly (and very visibly) mismanaging it.

Apple needs to take a good long look at the Microsoft of today and ask if it isn’t starting to make the same mistake; stubbornly pushing ahead with flawed policies/strategies that are justified on the strength of product market share alone, despite the obvious (and loud!) protestations of the public, the press, and sooner or later, even its own shareholders.

Sure, Apple isn’t as bad as Microsoft yet. But this is how it starts, people. Google Voicegate. Joe Hewitt. Rogue Amoeba. It’s not exactly dancing in an Apple Store, but it’s still embarrassing and potentially damaging, and it’s definitely a trend that won’t go away unless Apple does something to fix it.

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