What is Microsoft thinking? Some thoughts on the Microsoft commercials

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Reader DjCarbon pinged me this morning with an interesting bit of news. Above you see the first two entries for the search “i’m a PC” in Google – Apple has essentially hijacked the dialogue about personal computers, forcing Microsoft to take a stand through their new commercials. The “I’m a Mac/I’m a PC” commercials are odd and insidious but, as we see here, Apple has distanced itself from the profit-averse desktop PC market and created a new category. It’s not a PC you’re buying, fanboi, it’s not a beige box with a keyboard and a crappy LCD. No, you’ll never have to open the case, Mac-lover. You’ll never have to upgrade the operating system. When you walk into the Apple store you aren’t shopping for a PC – a personal computer, to reengage that acronym’s original meaning. You’re buying something much cooler, right?

Now, however, Microsoft is attempting to wrest that concept back from Apple. Think about the advertising thus far. We began with the Mojave Project, a Folger’s Taste Test involving folks who probably know Windows as the program that boots up when they walk into the office in the morning. This made it clear that the original “Wow” tag-line Microsoft used for Vista was still applicable – clearly the “Wow” didn’t stick so they had to reinforce it – and reminded us that Vista still exists. The Mojave commercials attacked the first complaint about OS X vs. Windows: interface creativity. Whereas OS X has been using photo-realistic icons and sexy docks for years, Windows has been as attractive as the interface on a stud finder – press a button and something that you don’t understand causes the device to blink and beep, you drill, and 99% of the time you generally trust that you got the right outcome (but sometimes you hit a power line and blow everything up). While this is OK for power tools, this is sub-par for a computer operating system.

Vista was designed to inject some life into that tired old paradigm, to make the operating system as cool as the games that were being played on it and the applications it was running. In my mind, they succeed but clearly the majority – especially in IT – doesn’t think so so maybe they can’t talk up the technical points anymore. So where should they go next? Convince people that Vista is fun and quirky.

We then visit Jerry and Bill. OS X and Linux have faces – Jobs and Linus – and stories. Windows was spat out whole by a faceless organism, something like the afterbirth of robotic coding grubs hidden in the spire of the Space Needle. So you have a nebbishy little man and his goofy sidekick reframe the rhetoric of PCs. It’s not about the computer, it’s about Bill just as Apple isn’t really about the hardware but about the salesman.

Here’s Bill’s auto-reply:

this is an exciting time… wait, you know what? it’s always an exciting time. i am as excited and passionate about Microsoft as i was when we were Micro-soft. the goal never changes for us, so everyday seems like the first day, and the first day was really just about one thing: connecting people.

maybe this didn’t answer your question at all. but I wanted to say it anyway. i mean, this is an auto-response email. and i will try to answer a few of them, but they will all say the same exact thing…

this is an amazing company. and, yes, the future really is delicious.

Mmmmmm…

Bill

Vista, you see, is the cake. If you’re thinking what I’m thinking, you’re probably not the audience for this commercial but to everyone else the cake isn’t a lie – it’s just moist and delicious. So the face of Microsoft has been changed from buttons and windows to a nerd doing the robot. We’re on the way to anthropomorphizing this product in the consumer’s mind.

So now we have the “I’m a PC” commercials. All of the folks with a Windows.com email address are actual Microsoft employees. They’re separating Microsoft and Windows from the hardware on which it runs and pulling the image of a man in beige out from under Apple’s messaging. Once you see Deepak Chopra saying “I’m a PC,” the reasoning goes, you’re less likely to accept that the affable fool John Hodgman truly represents the Windows PC market. This sort of torsion – the spinning of concepts to achieve Microsoft’s end result – is probably the real goal. They don’t want to be a physical box anymore, they want to be the cool product that happens to come inside that box. With companies like HP and Dell installing Linux as an optional OS and Apple planning – as far as we can tell – a considerably cheaper MacBook, Microsoft needs to convince all of us that Windows and, most importantly, Windows Vista, is still a great product.

Will they succeed? Yes. Apple will phase out its commercials and Windows Vista will sell millions of copies on pre-loaded machines. The only downside at this point is what Apple and Linux will continue to do to erode Microsoft’s market share, not to mention Google and the entire Web 2.0 infrastructure. Microsoft will be with us long after we’re all dead and gone. It is an example of American ingenuity and reach, and it serves a global market in ways even the robber barons and colonizers couldn’t imagine. But Windows is essentially a commodity, something like water. It’s easy to convince people to buy water in cool new packages but in the end, if given the choice, it’s hard to convince people to stick to one brand of water or, if offered water for free, convince them to turn around and pay for it. Microsoft is turning from a software company to a “service.” They can’t become a verb like Google and they can’t become a lifestyle like Apple but they can be a cool guy in a fleece vest and they can be Deepak Chopra. They can be anything you want them to be, really, as long as it’s not an ugly box under your desk that you accept and on occasion hate.

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