You know, when movie and TV producers want to depict the quintessential computer nerd, they usually present a character that bears more than a passing resemblance to Bill Gates. However, in the real world, Gates is more of a marketing genius than a programming genius. While he has certainly written some software in his time, his largest successes have come from supremely clever marketing. First, of course, to sell IBM an operating system, and then going out and buying it from another company at a much lower price.
You might call that the most famous shell game in recent history, although I’m sure the financial mavens in our audience will find others of similar or greater significance.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with being a good salesman. Certainly, Apple does quite well on that score, particularly in recent years. In fact, some have suggested that Apple these days is less about innovation and more about packaging and marketing.
The thing that benefited Microsoft most over the years, of course, is the fact that the tech and financial press hung on their every word with nary a critical comment. So when Microsoft announced a forthcoming advanced operating system technology known as Cairo that would trump anything available from the competition back in the early 1990s, they were believed. In fact, there are so few disclosures about the innovation that never was, you have to wonder whether Microsoft’s “Reality Distortion Field” remains more powerful than the one for which Steve Jobs has become famous.
Segue to the 21st century, where Gates is cutting back his participation in Microsoft, and is no longer the richest man in the world. That honor these days goes to Carlos Slim, the Mexican billionaire who owns the failing CompUSA chain, among other holdings.
More to the point, the PC makers don’t seem to exist in abject fear of Microsoft quite so much anymore, witness the fact that you can still order a computer with Windows XP rather than Vista. In addition, businesses are even more skeptical of Vista than they were of XP, and thus are putting off purchase decisions beyond testing for another year or two.
Let’s not forget the fact that you can also buy a new Dell PC, at least a few models, with Linux preloaded. This may not indicate anything more than just adding another option for power users, but it does show that Microsoft’s influence may be waning.
It’s almost as if you expect to get bad news from them these days. If Apple took roughly $100 in charges against millions of iPods, the headlines would blanket print and online news outlets around the world for days, and the stock price would take a huge tumble.
But when Microsoft does precisely that to fund repair of lots and lots of failing Xbox 360s, there’s hardly a second glance. After all, we all know Microsoft builds defective products more than occasionally, so this is nothing particularly new. Besides, with all the cash they’re sitting on, what’s a billion dollars anyway? Nothing to worry about, right?
I suppose I should have expected a lack of spit and polish during the period I was using Microsoft’s Wireless Laser Desktop for Mac keyboard and mouse combo. After a year or so, I noticed that the decals on some of the most used keys had worn off. Not too serious, but the accompanying mouse, though nicely designed, has a fatal flaw. You see, every few days, it just stopped working. This problem transcended multiple samples, driver updates, Mac OS updates and, in fact, two different computers.
What’s more, I can’t believe that other users of that product haven’t had similar problems, nor explain why it took several months to replace a few keytop decals that signify the sole difference between the Mac and Windows versions of these products.
Now in saying that, I have to tell you that I still have high praise for Microsoft’s Mac Business Unit. Within the constraints imposed on them by the company’s corporate culture and goals, they really do extremely good work. Yes, Office for the Mac may be as bloated as they come, but it also gets the job done in a smooth and relatively reliable fashion.
This isn’t to say that there aren’t threats on the horizon. Apple’s iWork ’08 has taken on more and more of the capabilities of Office and presented them with the appropriate level of pizazz and sex appeal. Pages, for example, fully supports Word’s Track Changes component through two-way translations, and that’s a feature required by editors and writers around the world. Meanwhile, Office for the Mac 2008 won’t arrive until after the first of the year. It may end up being a truly excellent suite, but Microsoft has to feel the pressure now.
They no longer rule the roost, despite the huge worldwide market share. For once, they might actually be forced to try harder.
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