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  • 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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