Saturday, November 10th, 2007

Microsoft repositions to kick ass

Microsoft repositions to kick ass
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For the past months I’ve lived a dual-life, working part-time on a PC, and the remainder on a Mac. While there are things I like about both, (I can feel a flood of protest emails coming as I write this) I’m not convinced that the Mac platform is wholly better than Windows in daily usage.

I’m currently running XP on a desktop we built for about a thousand dollars. It’s blazingly fast, and I rarely have to fight with it or reboot. I also run a MacBook, which is a gorgeous device; it’s light, portable, glossy, and one of the nicest pieces of industrial design I own. I like it, but it hasn’t inspired me to migrate to it completely. The purpose of this post, however, isn’t to pose the question of which is the superior operating system.

Some people like the challenge of crossword puzzles or Sudoku. I personally find brand problems intriguing. (I know… nerdy right?) Well, my “dual-platform existence” leads me contemplate the clumsiness of Microsoft‘s brand. Although they are still dominant, Apple is closing the gap. I feel that Apple’s strong positioning and customer loyalty are incredibly powerful, and for all of Microsoft’s power and influence, they still come off like a dorky adolescent.

So, today I’d like to ruminate on how Microsoft could reposition.

1. Carve a unique line

Companies adopt ideas and improve upon them all the time. This often means better stuff for the end user. Just think of “spaces” on Leopard, which was available for years on Linux. The folks at Apple are smart though. They fit these approaches into their brand identity, and as such, the idea (almost) always looks like it’s theirs.

Microsoft, on the flip side, often seems like a cheap imitator because their design stylings are so derivative of Apple’s. In Microsoft’s own interest this has to end, and why shouldn’t it? Apple’s design sensibility is beautiful, but it’s not the only one out there. Redmond has to make a radical departure and create its own distinct visual style.

2. Position around power

In my mind, Microsoft is vanilla. Regardless of what strategies they may have in place, they do not maintain a compelling or identifiable brand position in the minds of the general public. They may be the “default setting” of computing, but that’s a dangerous spot to occupy.

I’d ask the team at Microsoft to ask some blunt questions about who they really are. I don’t mean the bullshit “mission statement” responses here either; I’m talking brutal honesty. From a peripheral standpoint, my nutshell response to this situation would be something like, “We’re the most powerful computing force on the planet, and we’re acting like a bunch of sissies.”

And what do you do with this sort of an insight? Well, first off, you make “power” the one core Microsoft value, and you then message this to customers: “If you want pretty, glossy, cool stuff, buy a Mac. For those want speed, tools and interoperability, there’s Windows.”

Such a position could easily inform that visual style we spoke of earlier. The new Windows would be deliberately “anti-Mac”. It would be stripped down: void of superfluous glows, bubble-gum shadings, and unnecessary gimmicks. We’re talking about an OS that’s raw—built to squeeze out every drop of power the processor can muster.

The great part about this is that it’s almost true. (Sluggish Vista compromises this promise.) A key factor in my choice to primarily use a PC is that even my inexpensive machine is very fast. Anything similarly configured on a Mac would be more than five-times the cost.

3. Cut the crap

To do this, we have to start editing, and I mean the ugly, “red ink all over the place” editing that Ms. Hughes used to dish out when reviewing my twelfth grade essays. This is a system wide removal of clutter and noise. What the consumer primarily sees, however, is a clean and confident presentation.

This means the implementation of a gutsy nomenclature for products that does away with anything wishy-washy like “Silverlight” or “Vista”. I’d even go so far as to disassociate the firm from its God-awful name that seems to be a strange reference to a small, limp penis.

This confidence would bring with it the end of corny stock imagery, nauseatingly uplifting theme music, meaningless glossy surfaces and swooshes of light in the operation’s advertising and design elements. Microsoft “blue” also gets the kibosh, replaced by black and grey. The message is clear: this company means business.

I imagine a company so emboldened by this position that they even start to release a single version of their operating system, instead of the traditional half-dozen (or so) flavors.

4. No, really… Cut the crap

ballmerSteve Ballmer seems like an awfully smart guy, but when he’s doing shit like this (see inset image) he does himself and Microsoft a disservice. As awkward as Bill Gates may have at times appeared, he always gave the impression that he was the smartest person in the room. Steve, on the other hand, presents himself like an Animal House reject with a boat-load of Energizer batteries stuck up his butt, as he bounces around in sweaty bumbling hysterics.

While I appreciate Steve’s enthusiasm, he presents himself in a fashion that isn’t in-line with that of the world’s most powerful software company.

5. Boldly embrace the customer

I’m sick and tired of Apple’s proprietary brand of black turtle-neck wearing smugness; I’m equally disenfranchised by corny and disingenuous campaigns like Microsoft’s “Wow” campaign, courtesy of McCann Worldwide, to promote Vista. It’s time for Microsoft’s marketing to get real and talk about solving problems, instead of turning this into the sentimental equivalent of a high-school valedictorian’s big speech.

Give us fewer things that work better. Focus on core competencies and articulate your offering plainly and honestly. I don’t need my machine to have a personality; I simply want responsive, effective and expedient tools. Just like any company, Microsoft could find its true voice by focusing on the basics, treating their customers like intelligent beings, and speaking with us sincerely.

Of course, none of this is going to happen. Microsoft is still a behemoth, and it’s not as though they are asking for my opinion. That being said, I had more fun with it than I would have found in a crossword puzzle.

Have other suggestions? Why not air them on this list at MakeFive?

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Comments & Trackbacks

  1. Luke says:

    ahh, don't get me started... How to help Microsoft? Help? no... they seem to be doing very well for themselves selling all the crap they do;)

  2. Amit Dixit says:

    """"We’re the most powerful computing force on the planet, and we’re acting like a bunch of sissies.”"""

    That’s pretty harsh - But I do agree with it :)

  3. Geof Harries says:

    I believe it's too late for Microsoft to turn themselves around. Apple was much smaller, more agile and of course, so desperate that they had to do an bout face. Microsoft is not in a poor enough position to think that they have to re-route themselves, so I doubt at this time they'll do anything but maintain status quo.

    That said, you've posted some very intelligent and innovative ideas for the company. I wish they had they the vision and strength to make it happen.

  4. brad says:

    i pretty much hate microsoft, but you have some great ideas here on things they could do to make me hate them less. sadly though the bigger a company gets the less nimble it can be, and in the computer world microsofts about as big as you can get. i'll be interested to see how success and growth change two of my favorite companies - google & apple.

  5. lisa says:

    omg.....this is the lamest article I've ever read,, get a life.
    branding? how's about a microsoft label in every house on the entire planet? does that BRAND for you?

  6. OMG Lisa--that's like, the lamest, like, rebuttal, like, ever. Dude, honestly... [end "Valley Girl" accent here.]

    I left all kinds of holes in my argument. Go back and look for them; they are there. But ubiquity? You aren't seriously coming back with ubiquity as an argument are you? (Sigh.)

    Market dominance in no way gives the organization immunity to the whims of a changing marketplace. In fact, it often proves a liability; just think of Kodak, IBM, GM. Even the Titanic proved sinkable.

    So, back to the keyboard it is for you. As noted, I've left some gaping holes there. This time think, then type. ;-)

  7. In the defend MS camp is the "look at the revenue" bottom line argument, which is impressive.

    Beyond that, however, you are spot on (except for Ballmer's antics which I view as authentic and inspiring-but to each his own).

    The challenge at MS is that it came of age when marketing meant something else and that inertia and paradigm is REALLY difficult to change.

    Why do you think I call my MS blog "Igniting the Revolution" and the sub-title: Change the way Microsoft and our partners do marketing...or Get Fired Tryin'

    A sea-change is required in our thinkng. In reality, the products are very good and have the potential to really make a difference.We just aren't good-at all-at telling that story.

  8. Hi Jeremy,

    Agreed; Microsoft makes a number of great products. Personally, I'm a big fan of the Outlook/Exchange combination, which I still don't believe has a viable competitor in the marketplace.

    The challenge that Microsoft faces is, in fact, similar to the challenges that we see with a number of our (much smaller) clients. They often have strong attributes, but aren't able to articulate them in a compelling fashion. Either they become focused on mimicking their competitors or they dilute their message by saying too much.

    I'm interested to see where you folks go over the next couple of years. :-)

  9. Dan says:

    Hi Eric,

    I totally agree. I remember the days of lean-as ROM-based operating systems where you'd turn the machine on and get a command prompt immediately. With 32kB of RAM, you could kick ass.
    So why, with today's massive increase in processing power, could someone not produce something along the same lines?
    No-one makes an OS with a stripped-back UI, no cruft, but still an awesome user experience. Surely it's not that hard?

    Anyway, those are five good points; cheers!

    PS: Lotus Notes/Domino eats Outlook/Exchange for breakfast. :)

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  11. Antoine says:

    Nice post!

    I'm still amazed by the "Wow" campaign ... how could they do that!

    MS needs to simplify its message ... a great example is the MS homepage (, where is the menu?

    A confused customer = A lost customer (literally)

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  13. John says:

    Who wrote this? Byline, please.

  14. Hi John,

    I'm Eric Karjaluoto. I write most of the pieces here. :-)


  15. Yeah, no question you are comes down to storytelling, which we don't do well at all (well, we haven't had to, so it's not a core competency. THAT has to change). Posted on this a ton.

  16. Adrian says:

    "No-one makes an OS with a stripped-back UI, no cruft, but still an awesome user experience."

    Gave a go at Ubuntu 7.10 - its very, very close.

  17. Adrian3 says:

    I used to be able to go either way in the "Mac vs. PC" debate. That all changed with Vista and the ever improving Mac experience. All the branding in the world can't help you when your product is crap. That is what Vista is plain in simple and that is what hurts the "brand" the most.

  18. dt says:

    A very well written article. But have you considered that this geeky, vanilla approach could be their intention in the first place? When you need to market your product to a majority it is very difficult to find a position that covers the spectrum as much as possible.

    To me Microsoft plays the part of the ones and zeros and translating it to what I can try to understand. Though not always perfect!

    You are right at the end though to say that apple has fallen off the other end of extreme smugness.

  19. Hi DT,

    That's certainly a possibility; nevertheless, I wonder if it's the most effective approach.

    My feeling is that a large part of the market wants is for their computer to operate as seamlessly as a toaster: easy to use, with no confusion. I wonder what would happen if this became part of the design strategy.

  20. Bill Gates says:

    Microsoft Sucks and Apple rules [ end quote ]

    Why buy 20 apples for $2 a piece when you can buy just 1 apple for $5 and never have to buy again, did I miss something here ?

    A used mac is like driving a brand new mustang convertible, it pains me to see so many MS users have to buy new pcs every time it breaks.

  21. I'm always a little reluctant to approve comments like the one above. In part I feel that if you have an opinion, you should stand behind it with your real name; additionally, I somewhat shudder when I read such seemingly obtuse comments. Most ideasonideas readers are a little more thoughtful in their responses, and not quite so quick to fall into pointless “rah-rah” hyperbole. Nevertheless, we do try to keep ideasonideas open to any responses, so long as they aren't offensive or hurtful to others.

    But to the point… I would like to reiterate that this post isn't intended to spur debate regarding one’s preferred operating system. We did already have that discussion; if you are keen to join that debate, you can just go here:

  22. Olivier says:

    I'd like to point out that is by no means the official website of Linux.
    Try instead, for a better description of what the system is and why it matters.

  23. Lewis says:

    There are 2 parts to where i work, the design studio with 30 odd MACs and the offices with 200 or so PCs. I'm one of the designers. I was having a conversation with a guy at work who's a brand manager and uses a PC. he was complaining about MACs and said everyone should use PC's. This sums it up...

    PCs are for the losers who add things up, MACs are for the cool people.

    I make no apologies.

  24. Grouse says:

    Thank you Eric for this interesting article,

    I don’t think Microsoft will change much, they have been in the “game” for a long time, and I doubt they’ll change what’s worked so far.

    Apple is also going the same way. They did well to gain such a large market share in such a small amount of time by listening to their consumers and delivering something that was needed (agile?). However it will be interesting to see how public support change as apple becomes more dominant in the industry. No longer the under-dog, Apple may now find itself facing a general public who will no-longer overlook those niggling problems which they put up with before.

    So where will the public attention fall now? Their allegiance will swing to the next underdog. In my opinion this will be Linux, you can already see this process starting.

  25. velk says:

    A couple days late but...

    Over all I agree with your summation of the Microsoft strategy. A lot of what it can be boiled down to is that Apple appears to be a leader (though they borrow a lot of ideas) while Microsoft appears to be a follower. Perception is a powerful thing.

    Frankly I could do without the glitz and glam, swoop and shine in both operating systems. I prefer all my computing power going into the apps I'm running rather than showing real time reflections in the OS.

    While I don't see Apple as smug, rather as self assured and confident in their product, I do see Microsoft as the bumbling fool that can't seem to find their way down a lighted hallway. This perception is fed upon by seemingly pointless features, horde of OS variations and by the inability to launch their OS with the features promised on their own timeline.

    Microsoft needs to change and quickly, 3 and a half years ago I was an avowed Windows fan (owning 6 PCs) and saw the huge potential that the new OS presented. As time slipped away and features were stripped I saw that the Apple OS did everything I wanted and was getting ahead of the curve. Today my computer situation has flipped and I currently have 6 Macs in my home/design studio.

  26. Tselentis says:

    Microsoft is turning around already, and Eric has identified some key strategies they should take advantage of sooner than later. Price and power are meaningful issues, and with tools like the One Laptop Per Child hitting the streets and schools, anyone can be a player. Microsoft has the market share, and they will continue to; Apple on the other hand has to really fight to stay alive, and have been doing so since the days of the Apple LC and the other tan machines.

  27. David S. says:

    Microsoft makes Apple possible. That said, Apple is keeping Microsoft alive today. If Microsoft tries to kill Apple, they're losing the thorn in their heel that keeps them on their toes and provides inspiration for evolution in their own products.

    In my eyes, the only way Microsoft can truly change perception about their products is to intensify their brand efforts, as Eric noted, to create differentiation.

    But that branding effort also would require them to divest themselves of whole chunks of their company to create more focus. It would transcend their color palette and photography and requires a completely new approach to their business.

    The only question is... would their shareholders want that? Currently Microsoft is moving towards being a lifestyle & media company. It's just that Apple has always had that approach as part of their DNA, and Microsoft hasn't. They've spent too much time focusing on business products and global markets.

  28. whiskey says:

    The time has come... the tides are changing, more and more people are bound to jump this ship called MS just to be rescued by whoever is there at open sea (even that rusty old fishing boat called XP).

  29. All MS Hate aside, your post is very well done and the ideas are really good, MS would really be a better suited company for the user if they had that kind of branding. But MS screwed up in a lot of stuff, they make so many big mistakes but they dominate the OS market. They make so much money just on company computer licenses, schools, etc, that they don't give that much attention to their brand.

    Let's not go to Mac VS PC VS Linux, been there so many times and that discussion its only a time waster, every OS has its downside and its upside, and each user chooses according to their preferences and uses.

    Great post nevertheless, I like your ideas, and it would be cool to see another post by a different person about repositioning the brand with another view, instead of the Hard, Solid you chose.

  30. Ben Reimers says:

    You're pretty much right when it comes to the way a company brands itself, but Microsoft's main downfall, I reckon, is that the development of its products has taken a generally linear fashion -- with limited flavours for home/business/student. It was probably better when they had 95 and NT as separate systems, but stumbled when they combined them in XP. Nobody needs a business-oriented system in their home, unless they're running a business there.

    The failure is that they've lost sight of the end user, and treating them all the same is a recipe for lost market share. That's why Apple is gaining ground: their end user is the user that MS forgot. Most home users only use 5% of the functionality of Office, and all that extra stuff is simply money wasted (in their eyes). Vista might be a power-house, but who wants to fork out even more money (on top of the exorbitant price of the OS itself) just so it works the way it's supposed to? And if you don't upgrade, why buy an OS that looks and acts exactly the same as your old one?

    These are the questions MS needs to be asking themselves. Perhaps they should be developing a separate OS for home and business -- giving home users the style and functionality they need, while allowing business the power and customisation they need.

    I'm not saying they should become like Apple, because they have a giant advantage over them: the business market. But what they should probably do is make a split -- MS for corporate clients, and a new brand for home users -- and run them as separate businesses, though obviously with the ability to share new/innovative technologies.

  31. alex pearson says:

    I appreciate what you are saying here, and honestly I feel it's true. If you could somehow convince Microsoft to make these changes, it would work.... However, Apple is already doing what you've suggested (most of it) and because of it, they can charge more and get it. They innovate, Microsoft imitates.

  32. Scott Lowe says:

    Microsoft might be the vanilla as you call it but they do put a lot of toppings on as you mentioned with your half a dozen OS packages comment.

    So defining "vanilla", it is basic, goes with many topings, mix-ins, cones, cups, cakes and birthdays.

    So we want an operating system that is not only basic but expandable. There are more user-types for computers than microsoft had nerds and money for. Maybe a very 3rd party modified (like mozilla and its add-ons) type of operating system is what the doctor (or little kid) ordered. Something where you get a delicious, usable product, that can also be adjusted to do what YOU personally need it to do.

    As for the mac vs pc (small penis? ;) ). Who made up that BS about macs being for creative people and pc's being for business people. I'm an architect student and architecture (an arguably creative field) is a pc dominated field. I think mac's most powerful branding technique is the idea creative people need macs. I have seen no creative or non creative examples of why thats true. Many of the programs that i need do not run on a mac. My sister who is going into fashion bought a mac because its what creative people do, although I can't imagine that photoshop and Word run better on mac's. Oh and I know what your thinking, but! my 4 year old dell laptop ($2000 at the time) does not have a crashing problem even while running all those fun 2d+3d programs we all know and love. I think I got what i payed for.

    PS Macs are pretty, this post is long. (no thats not a hidden meaning I'm just typeative)

  33. Geof Harries says:

    Nearly three months after the original post, but I think you and others may find Cairo of great interest. The project strips the Windows UI down to its core elements and functions.

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