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Why Microsoft Wants to Return to the 1990s

Since I posted my observations about that boring vignette that passes for a Microsoft commercial, featuring Bill Gates and Jerry Seinfeld, some of you have responded with your own comments. Most, I think, agreed with me that it was a yawner that seriously failed to deliver on its promise, which was to get you to adopt Windows Vista. Or at least that’s what I suppose it was there to do.

Others remarked that Microsoft simply wanted to increase the Windows comfort zone, comparing it to an old shoe that you’re used to and aren’t apt to replace, except, perhaps, with a newer shoe from the same maker.

Well, I suppose there’s some inherent wisdom in that approach, but I think it mainly signifies the mindset of Microsoft’s executives. You see, I have come to believe that, if someone succeeded in inventing a time machine, Steve Ballmer and the rest of his crew would want to travel back to the mid-1990s, when the world’s largest software company could truly claim ownership of the phrase “king of the world.”

Consider the climate in those days, and let’s not talk about anything necessarily political. You see, Microsoft could do no wrong. With the release of Windows 95, their ragged, supremely buggy Mac OS imitation truly came of age. People actually waited on long lines to buy a copy, in much the same fashion as they did when Apple released Leopard last October, and when the iPhone 3G arrived in early July of this year.

At the same time, a lot of people got frustrated with Apple, which frittered away its R&D dollars blowing at windmills rather than releasing a compelling upgrade to the aging Mac operating system. Even the hardware, although it took advantage of the most powerful chips of its day — the fledgling PowerPC platform — had some serious design issues. Products didn’t always appear on time, and when they did, they arrived in highly flawed condition.

Here’s an example: Anyone who attempted to install memory into a Power Mac 8100/80 or any of its brethren, had to endure a lengthy process of unplugging cable assemblies and removing the logic board. At any point in the process, you risked bloodied fingers or even damaging the box.

No, I can’t say that I ever encountered either problem, although I performed that installation procedure several dozen times. I also understand that, when Apple released the Power Mac 9600, which had a very simple method of disassembling the minitower for RAM upgrades, the product person who introduced it confirmed to me that the people who designed the previous version were “no longer with Apple.”

He paused as he received a loud round of applause.

When Steve Jobs returned, the very first product with his stamp on it was the iMac, but don’t get me started about the RAM installation scheme for that model. It was quite as intimidating as those older Mac minitowers. Indeed, the Mac mini is another example of gross negligence of the simple elegance and upgrade elements that most Macs possess.

In any case, despite Apple’s current issues and occasional glitches, in the 1990s, a lot of people felt the company was on its last legs, a relic of the 1970s and 1980s that would soon be supplanted by real PCs. Even developers got frustrated and abandoned Mac users in a flood of increasing intensity.

Microsoft considers that to be the good old days, before antitrust actions halted their momentum, before the iPod, before Mac OS X, and Apple’s incredible resurgence.

Indeed, in those days, then-CEO Bill Gates was regarded as the tech visionary of the ages, endlessly speculating on tech inventions that, in the end, seldom came to pass. Or if they did, were generally buggy and lacked many of the promised features. In retrospect, he was more of a salesman than computer guru, and a lot of people fell for his incessant promotion.

To be sure, Gates is to be commended for giving away billions of dollars in various charitable enterprises, but in those days, it was all about amassing wealth, and in that he succeeded incredibly well.

So Microsoft somehow figures that having Gates in those new commercials will remind you of the days when they were both respected and feared by all of their competitors.

But where does Jerry Seinfeld fit into the picture? Well, Seinfeld was the star of a popular TV sitcom, a show “about nothing,” they say, but it received great ratings and sustained itself on the NBC network from 1989 to 1998. Indeed, they retired the show before lower ratings would force cancellation. There’s something about quitting while you’re ahead.

Today, Gates is quit his full-time job at Microsoft and Seinfeld, while still well-known, concentrates mostly on standup comedy and occasional TV guest spots and specials.

As part of Microsoft’s $300 million campaign to polish off Windows Vista, maybe the scene of Gates and Seinfeld on a shoe store is nothing more than an ode to happier times. Well, happier for Microsoft that is. Thank heavens the cable company hasn’t found a way to deactivate the fast-forward button on my DVR box.