The Eternal “Microsoft is Clueless” Argument

December 7th, 2010

I realize that Microsoft, despite being second to Apple in tech industry stock market cap, remains a behemoth to be reckoned with. But it’s also curious to see how the company arrived at that position despite remaining totally oblivious to pop culture, and what regular people want or expect.

Perhaps Microsoft’s most successful marketing campaign was the one announcing the arrival of Windows 95, the OS credited with kicking the Mac OS to the sidelines. Indeed, it took years for Apple to find its way and get on the fast track to growth at the expense of Microsoft and, in fact, Sony, RIM, and loads of other companies.

To kick-start the ad campaign, Microsoft got the rights to the Rolling Stones hit recording “Start Me Up.”

Unfortunately, the mindless wizards who devised that promotion never actually read the lyrics, particularly the third stanza that repeats “You make a grown man cry” three times.

To be fair to Microsoft’s ad agency, maybe they didn’t listen very closely. It’s not as if Mick Jagger’s verbal dexterity is so fluid that you can actually understand many of his lyrics. I remember spending a fun few hours a number of years ago with a radio programmer with whom I was working, in which we discussed a certain potentially provocative turn of phrase in “Honky Tonk Woman.” We played the segment in question dozens of times, and came back with different interpretations of what he meant.

And in case you’re wondering, it’s the phrase “I played a divorcee in New York City.” I’ll leave it to your imaginations to consider the alternatives.

In the end, if an ad campaign succeeds, the ingredients of that campaign usually don’t matter. Surely few listened to the actual “Start Me Up” lyrics or made the accidental, but accurate, connection during the Windows 95 promotion. Yes, I can also tell you, with little fear of objection, that loads and loads of Windows users, grown men or women, came close to tears coping with the various and sundry OS quirks over the years.

More recently, in the wake of the unexpected growth of the iPod, starting in 2001, Microsoft tried and failed to topple the market leader using its traditional technique of licensing technology to third parties. PlaysForSure bombed, so Microsoft decided to imitate Apple and begat the Zune. It was a decent enough product, but did “Welcome to the Social” hold any real meaning to the young audience Microsoft wanted to reach?

Clearly not. Zune fared worse than some of those highly-touted iPod killers, although it’s theoretically still available. It’s not as if Microsoft understands when to kill an unsuccessful product. Their corporate DNA often won’t allow them to move on, so we may have a Zune around until the end of time, I suppose.

In another obvious example, if Bing doesn’t sustain itself beyond the expensive and ill-thought marketing campaign, maybe they’ll call it Bong, spruce up (or at least change) the interface, and let it persevere regardless.

These days, in fact, it appears that Bing’s biggest success is largely at the expense of Yahoo! Since Bing search powers Yahoo, Microsoft is just cannibalizing itself. It doesn’t appear as if Google is suffering any. With loads and loads of Android OS phones being sold that, with few exceptions, default to Google’s search, their search traffic remains high. Despite Apple’s decision to Bing and Yahoo! as search alternatives for Safari, Google remains in the lead by a wide margin, simply because so few people actually change the default setting.

In any case, I could go on with the miserable Microsoft ads, and the lack of wisdom behind them.

Not so long ago, Microsoft recruited Jerry Seinfeld, star of a 1990s sitcom “about nothing,” and paired him with Bill Gates to record ads about nothing. After a couple of these pathetic efforts failed to generate anything but sad laughter, they were stopped. Seinfeld reportedly got $10 million for his efforts, which isn’t too shabby for a couple of day’s work at acting the fool.

A more recent campaign featured some uninformed individuals buying a new laptop, avoiding the MacBook or MacBook Pro because it was too pricy, and picking a far-inferior cheaper PC instead. Talk about buyer’s remise.

Then there’s that Windows 7 feature, highly praised by the lame consumer “who invented it,” which allows you to pin document windows on the corners of the screen. The greatest invention since sliced bread?

Don’t forget (though you may prefer to) the magical, mystical cloud nonsense that Microsoft uses to fill the airwaves between iPad and iPhone spots nowadays. The cloud concept is arcane enough, and nothing is done in these commercials to actually explain what it all means to regular people. I can see the business benefits, of course, but Microsoft is barking up the wrong tree to confuse personal needs with business collaboration initiatives.

This isn’t to suggest for a moment that Microsoft is doomed to failure, but they more and more appear to be out of gas, in need of new leadership and a sensible corporate vision. Trying to persevere because they are, well, Microsoft, may provide good sales and profits for a few years. But they are fated to fail over time until or unless they finally get it.

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9 Responses to “The Eternal “Microsoft is Clueless” Argument”

  1. Don says:

    While it’s true that Microsoft’s record of advertising has been historically execrable, I think it’s a mistake to condemn them for choosing the Stone’s “Start Me Up” because of the “You make a grown man cry” line (as appropriate as it may be.

    As a comparison, pro-war right-wing politicians, year after year, use Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” as their musical theme, even though the lyrics are about a person born into hardship who breaks the law and ends up in the army and in Vietnam rather than go to jail, comes back and can’t find a job, has friends who die, and says, “I’m ten years down the road; Nowhere to run, ain’t got nowhere to go.”

    People only hear the title and ignore the rest.

    Besides, in the words of H.L. Mencken, “Nobody ever went broke by underestimating the intelligence of the American public.”

  2. Blad_Rnr says:

    You forgot Windows Phone 7. Some Windows pundit *cough Paul Thurrott cough* calls it a “game changer.” But he also said the iPad was not a “game changer.” Not sure what the definition of a “game changer” is, but I don’t think this pundit knows what he thinks he means.

    I digress. Windows Phone 7 is a joke. A niche product that will sit right along side the Zune because MSFT feels they have to be a player in this market, even if they are three years too late, and they will make no money on it after all the advertising dollars spent. I just saw an ad yesterday for a buy one, get one free Windows 7 phone. Geesh. Not even a month old. Game changer? I think not. A game changer, IMHO, is a device that literally makes the industry rethink what said device should be and/or do. The iPhone was a game changer. The iPad is a game changer. Windows Phone 7? Not so much. I don’t think Cupertino will be starting their copying machines anytime soon.

    The MSFT shareholders are correct. MSFT needs new direction and Ballmer is not the answer. He doesn’t get the consumer side of technology. He still thinks it’s 1995. And there are only so many remaining pundits like Thurrott who will carry the flag and fall on the sword until they become irrelevant from their blatant bias. Most of the tech media sees the emperor has no clothes. And so do most consumers.

    • @Blad_Rnr, I’ve done that in previous columns, and I was running out of the space I usually allocate for these articles. I think the issues are clear cut there too.

      Also, it doesn’t look as if people are lining up to buy Windows Phone 7 gear.


    • Al says:

      @Blad_Rnr, Well, Windows 7 could still be a game a changer in the sense it permanently relegates Microsoft to insignificant status in the smartphone game. I’d say if that happens then the game has changed indeed.

  3. Viswakarma says:

    I would slightly modify H.L. Mencken’s “Nobody ever went broke by underestimating the intelligence of the American public,” to “Nobody ever went broke by underestimating the intelligence of the American Corporations.”

    There are a whole bunch of Corporate CEO/CTO/CIO/IT Droids who would go for the Windows Phone 7, since it is from Microsoft and has Windows as a prefix!!!

  4. Lazer Wolf says:

    I have seen plenty of these articles bemoaning the fate of Microsoft. And I always find them interesting whether the focus is on the products or the advertising.

    And I must admit, it is mind boggling how out of touch Microsoft advertising seems to be. When I think of a Microsoft commercial I think of the color beige, which I guess is close to Zune brown. So maybe their advertising is working?

    But in all seriousness, I have yet to see a cogent analysis of how Microsoft arrived at their current position? They do have a talented work force after all.

    I’m of two minds when it comes to Microsoft. On one hand, they have consistently put out products that are just good enough, although many would debate that. Yet, this is also a once great American company that employs many people and because of that I can no longer take any joy in their follies.

    Having said that, they reap what they sow.

    Thanks Gene!

    • Al says:

      @Lazer Wolf, The thing is, all major Microsoft wins were not based on selling the hands-down far-and-away best product in its category. Think about it, all its wins are based on shrewdly and ruthlessly outmaneuvering everyone else on dealmaking resulting into the establishment of a formidable monopoly in Windows and Office. Let’s go over a few of these.

      Winning the contract to install DOS on the IBM-PC by stepping into the breach when DRI (remember them?) played hard-to-get with the more polished CP/M.

      Making sure that said supply contract with IBM was not exclusive (which allowed the clone industry to grow and eventually eclipse IBM, thus enabling MS to wrest control of the PC industry from IBM.)

      Doing a Zuckerberg to IBM’s Winklevoss Bros. by pretending to help IBM develop (the technically superior) OS/2 while at the same time developing MS Windows.

      Suckering Apple CEO John Sculley into signing a contract that let MS Windows legally copy MacOS’s hallmark features.

      Strongarming the PC mfrs into not preloading any software that competes with Windows, Explorer, Excel, Word, etc. thus cementing the Windows-Office twin monopolies.

      And the list goes on. Notice, none of these have anything to with Microsoft offering the best product out there. That’s why I say that Microsoft is not really a tech company. it’s a monopoly acquisition, extension and perpetuation company. It’s the Standard Oil of our time.

  5. Tom B says:

    If you type in your browser search box while on the Yahoo front page, they have a hijacking javascript or something that directs you to Yahoo search (presumably Bing) regardless of whether Google is your default.

    This is unethical and obnoxious– and I am sure this is precisely how Bing generates most of the traffic it gets!

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