Sunday, April 5, 2009

From Seinfeld to Lauren to Giampaolo—The Irony to Microsoft's Madness

Microsoft has a new ad out. It follows the same pattern as the recent ad with "Lauren," the woman who decides she's not "cool enough to own a Mac" and opts for a cheaper, more sensible PC. It also includes the "I'm a PC" tag line which Microsoft has proudly adopted for its users of all ages. The current ad continues a campaign which began bizarrely enough with Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Gates in a shoe store. Throughout the campaign, one point has remained constant—Apple is elitist and Microsoft is the computer for the "common man." Like a shoe bought at a discount shoe store, Windows is familiar and sort of comfortable and much, much cheaper than those hip Macintoshes with their fancy tassels and candy colored user interface.

I hadn't picked up on this message at first until last November's election when I was being bombarded by this message not by Microsoft but by John McCain who thought he could become president by branding Barak Obama as an elitist. Things didn't quite work out that way and I doubt that things will work out much better for Microsoft. If anything, it makes Microsoft look desperate for attention. This is ironic since despite Apple's growing popularity, Microsoft still dominates the personal computer market. But it's no longer as relevant as it used to be. As smartphones and web applications become more popular, people don't necessarily need to use a PC or a Mac to do many of the tasks that were once only possible with a personal computer. And even when these tasks are done on a personal computer the computer's operating system, the object of all these ads and counter ads, suddenly matters a lot less because of web apps which run in your web browser which itself does not need to be tied to specific operating system. That is the other irony, as Apple and Microsoft bicker over which computer you should buy, they do so from a position of weakness because Google is quietly (when was the last time you saw a TV commercial for Google?) usurping their place in terms of power and influence. It's as if in the last election after hearing Obama and McCain talk for months we'd all gone to the polls and elected Ron Paul president. It seems that advertising, like politics, is more about creating perceptions than it is about facts. This is shocking, I know.

Things get worse for Microsoft as its ads are essentially telling users that software doesn't matter, that style doesn't matter. The only thing that matters according to Microsoft's ads is price. So what if a Mac Mini can easily be hooked up to your HDTV and fits perfectly into your home entertainment center? An eMachines mini-tower is cheaper, surely the money you save is worth the extra effort of setting it up as a Home Theater PC, you can probably hide it in a cabinet or something. So what if a MacBook Air is thin and beautiful, netbooks are tiny and cost a third the price. Sure they're a lot less capable but for the price of a MacBook Air, you can buy three netbooks!

This is the final irony. Microsoft is not the cheapest game in town. While people like to complain about the "Apple Tax" which comes with every Macintosh, there is also a smaller but still significant Microsoft Tax which comes with every Windows PC. Linux distributions like Ubuntu are almost easy enough to use for most people and are getting better all the time. And they are free. Who cares if Ubuntu has a bland, mostly brown, color scheme with ugly fonts? It's free! Who cares, if that new HP computer comes in pretty colors? If you're smart and reasonably handy, you can just buy the parts, stick them in a generic case, throw Linux on it, and save yourself a few bucks!

By highlighting one virtue, price, Microsoft may be inadvertently preparing its users to eventually abandon it. Surely there are other virtues that Microsoft can extol. I've used Windows PCs for most of my adult life and it wasn't because entirely because of their price. I've used Windows for years because it was easy to use, well organized, because it has thousands of applications (and is backwards compatible with thousands of older applications) available for it. Those seem like pretty good reasons to prefer Windows over Mac OSX. Of course, I can also run Windows on a Macintosh fairly easily. In the past this was difficult and slow but nowadays it's easy and fast because the truth is that when you crack them open, a Windows PC and a Macintosh are basically the same machine. They both run on Intel processors and surround them with the same basic set of components. That is the zeroeth irony, one that is so obvious that it should have come before all of the others. At one time, PCs and Macintoshes were built around completely different architectures. But now, they are nearly identical except for the software that runs on top of them. At time when the PC versus Mac debate has become more heated than ever, it has become more irrelevant than ever.

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