The other day, when I forgot to Fast Forward through some TV ads, I caught one for Microsoft that struck me as one huge embarrassment. It seemed that father and son were seated next to each other working on anonymous note-books. The father completed a spreadsheet, no doubt Excel, and the son took over, adding a few flourishes that delivered results frightening close to a badly done 1990’s Flash animation. It came complete with what came across on my TV as ragged lettering.
The message: If you want to create that junk on your PC, get Windows 7.
I had to wonder how Microsoft’s executives and ad agency came to believe such a message would drive the supposed excellence of their product home. Sure, it’s great for family values to see parents and children getting along. That’s a good thing. But if they hoped to demonstrate that Windows 7 was somehow empowering someone’s creativity, they failed, utterly. But that’s nothing new.
In recent years, Microsoft has made some awfully lame efforts to get the word out about a current version of Windows. I remember when they squandered a reported $10 million to hire comic Jerry Seinfeld to appear in a series of TV ads accompanied by Bill Gates. Sure, Gates was the good sport and all, but these were ads about absolutely nothing, and were pulled after a few showings.
Of course, Seinfeld became famous in the 1990s as star of a TV sitcom “about nothing,” but you have to wonder if Microsoft’s marketing team had been caught in a time warp, to believe that the unlikely pairing of Seinfeld and Gates would somehow attract an audience. This came at a time when Apple’s Mac Versus PC ads were gaining lots of attention.
On another occasion, Microsoft tried to demonstrate the low pricing and sheer variety of Windows PCs by filming a set of faux reality spots, where people visited a consumer electronics store and ended up choosing a PC for some lame reason. I believe they even passed on a Mac on one occasion because it cost too much. Unfortunately, the logic or lack thereof used by those deliriously happy PC buyers almost always turned it to be wrong. Welcome to the Bizarro world.
Microsoft should feel lucky that they continue to fare best with business customers, except, of course, for the Xbox gaming console The Xbox and its accessories only succeeded, however, after Microsoft wasted billions of dollars trying to make that division profitable. This may be the reason why Microsoft continues to lavish ship loads of money into developing new versions of Windows, Windows Phone, Bing search and other products and services. They believe if you toss enough money at a problem, success is inevitable.
For 2012, Microsoft wants you to anticipate, with bated breath, the arrival of Windows 8. Sporting an interface overlay based on the failed theme used in the Zune digital media player and Windows Phone handsets, Microsoft somehow believes the Metro interface will come into its own on a personal computer or ARM-based tablet.
This doesn’t mean Metro is necessarily bad. Maybe the retro look will appeal to some people, though putting light text against darker backgrounds is a non-starter for me. Fortunately, it’s easy to dispense with Metro and return to the traditional Windows interfere on a PC; that is, assuming what I saw in the public developer release will carry through to the final version.
Microsoft, it seems, feels that innovation is akin to making something look and work differently. That must explain some of the curious interface changes with Windows Vista and Windows 7. Do they believe that confusing customers will somehow make them more productive?
The marketplace, though, has other ideas. Sales of Windows PCs are down. Some of that unexpectedly high increase in iPad sales came from customers who might have otherwise purchased PCs. That’s the sort of cannibalization Apple loves, although some iPad sales came at the expense of Macs. But not enough, it seems, to have made a significant dent in otherwise record sales.
Now there may be any number of explanations why Microsoft still doesn’t get it. Perhaps CEO Steve Ballmer is to blame, as some feel that, if Gates stayed at the helm, things would be different. Some suggest that Microsoft suffers from a problem that used to inflict GM. Management is saddled with committees headed by people who are afraid to make the hard decisions. Products and services are distilled, homogenized, lacking the substance necessary to change things substantially.
Sure, perhaps Microsoft is also the prisoner of OEM partners who insist on maintaining backwards compatibility in Windows. But that’s no way to lead the industry to embrace 21st century changes. These days, it’s all too little and too late with Microsoft, and it doesn’t appear as if the tech media takes them near as seriously as they used to. I mean, do you even recall what Microsoft discussed at their recent CES keynote? It was about Windows 8 and tablets, but it doesn’t seem as if anyone cared.
But there’s one significant problem in developing taste. It’s not necessarily something that can be taught. You either have it or you don’t. Microsoft may do best by throwing out their existing leadership, starting over with executives who actually have a clue. Or maybe it’s just too late.