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Lots of Advertising Doesn’t Guarantee Sales

I don’t know how much money Microsoft is spending — make that squandering — on the Windows 8 and Surface ad campaigns. But if you counted loudness as a factor in making one product more successful than another, you’d think the world had happily embraced the newest Microsoft products.

But if the latest Black Friday survey of store traffic, from industry analyst firm Piper Jaffray, is any indication, lots of customers were actually visiting and buying gear from Apple Stores. On the other hand, floor traffic at a Microsoft’s retail chain is apt to be far less, and you may not see anyone buying Surface tablets; at best, maybe a few games for the Xbox. Of course, this is all based on monitoring the two stores over an eight-hour period at a Minneapolis shopping mall, and I’ll grant that the survey sampling may be far too little to indicate a trend.

However, it’s not as if there are reports of Surfaces flying off the shelves, or at least the few shelves where one might be found. You can be sure that Microsoft’s CEO Steve Ballmer would want to put a positive spin on things, yet the best he could muster about Surface sales was “modest,” which likely means that the reality is far worse. Also, it doesn’t seem as if folks are crowding the consumer electronics stores to buy new PCs with Windows 8 preloaded, or have downloaded the upgrade to the controversial OS upgrade in high numbers.

It’s not that Microsoft isn’t trying to get the word out. Those loud TV ads for Windows 8, the Surface, and Internet Explorer are certainly designed to grab your attention, but to me they all work against making the advertised products seem warm and fuzzy. The loud procession of Surface tablets a-clicking, and people dancing seems hardly capable of informing you of the virtues of Microsoft’s tablet, or why we should care that the OS on an ARM-based mobile gadget is the same, more or less, as the one on a traditional PC. Well, except for the fact that you can’t run your regular PC apps on ARM hardware unless the apps are converted.

Those high-energy advertising campaigns appear to reflect Microsoft’s belief that, if you throw enough money at a problem, it will be solved. So even if Windows 8 and the Surface both tank this year, Microsoft will continue to invest in R&D to make them better, and hundreds of millions of dollars to get the word out, believing full well that success must inevitably come to them.

The problem in this day and age is that most users of mobile computers have already made decisions to choose the iOS or Android. Despite hopes and dreams that the next RIM OS revision and smartphone lineup will deliver sales magic, that’s yet to be demonstrated. Windows Phone continues to go nowhere, even though smartphones from Nokia and HTC that run that OS are getting surprisingly favorable reviews. That appears to mean that positive reviews may not count for much to customers who have already embraced a mobile app ecosystem and don’t see the need to start over.

I suppose the situation is unfortunate. While I think the execution is highly flawed, Microsoft is at the very least making a huge effort to leave their comfort zone and try something new, well more or less. But it’s still Windows everywhere, and not just special versions for each platform, but essentially the same version. Also, Microsoft has still failed to make the argument that the interface formerly known as Metro can actually deliver a superior user experience and increase productivity.

Indeed, other than a few avid Windows fans, and, unfortunately, Consumer Reports magazine, most people who have evaluated Windows 8 find the OS highly flawed, with poorly-designed touch features. There are also lots of concerns about the highly schizophrenic line of demarcation between the tiled environment and the traditional Windows desktop.

Now I do gather that Microsoft wants you to believe that once you are exposed to Windows 8, and spend the time to learn how things work, you’ll be a happy camper. But there are just too many functions that aren’t intuitive or consistently mastered. Certainly Apple’s iOS is not perfect, and there is plenty of room for improvement, but its discoverability is off the charts. Most people, of all ages, can figure out most of the basics in a short period of time without a user manual or even a simple cheat sheet.

Also consider the low-key fashion in which the iPhone and the iPad are advertised. The ads are designed to draw you in and not turn you off. Look, for example, at the recent iPad mini ad showing the matching musical keyboards on the full sized and smaller version. The message is clear, folks. The new model may be smaller and lighter, but it’s still an iPad through and through. Whatever worked on the big iPad continues to work on the small iPad. You don’t need dancers and clicks and clacks to convey the message. Right now, Microsoft’s ad campaign is the best promotion yet for a DVR and a convenient Fast Forward button.