Only Apple Can Play Apple

on May 14, 2013
Reading Time: 3 minutes

It has been a challenging few days in the press for the Microsoft camp. In a positive move, Tami Reller, CFO and head of marketing for Windows, gave more details on how many Windows 8 licenses had been sold, details on what they had learned from Windows 8, and what they intended to do to improve the experience.  The overall press reaction was very negative to the point that Microsoft’s head of communications, Frank Shaw, penned a blog defending the company and singling out two press outlets.  How did Microsoft get to this point?  Well, as I was quoted a few times this week, it’s because “only Apple can play Apple”.

Apple’s style, love it or hate, has been around exclusion and secrecy.  Their product, PR and analyst programs are very exclusive and at least from my experiences, impossible to get a response from. Large scale analyst days are non-existent and their product launches are held in smaller-venue locations.  This exclusionary strategy works well for Apple when it is doing great and bringing a constant flow of ground-breaking product to the table like the iPod, iPhone and iPad.  For the Apple of the 90’s, outside the Mac proponents, it was looked at with disdain, which was actually helped to bind the Mac crowd together. Microsoft’s adoption of Apple’s strategy is part of Microsoft’s challenge today.

During Windows XP and Vista time-frames, Microsoft had some of the most inclusive practices on the planet of any technology company out there.  During the Vista time-frame, Microsoft literally invented the large company social media interaction.  Forget about Vista the product, their social media strategy was phenomenal.  Oh yes, don’t forget, this is where Robert Scoble got his social media start. Microsoft also pioneered what I consider the “super-user”, or MVP program, which is still in practice today. For Windows, Microsoft would give a tremendous amount of details, very early on, about upcoming versions of Windows and had very inclusionary analyst and press practices.  Then came Windows 7.

During Windows 7, communications changed dramatically.  They became a lot more like Apple’s than Microsoft’s.  Ecosystem briefings, disclosures, and two-way communications seemed to slow to a crawl.  But that didn’t seem to have an effect on Windows 7 as the operating system was wildly successful.  The problem was, that this new communications strategy mythically became one of the reasons, inside of Microsoft, that Windows 7 was so successful.  The logic was that because we (Microsoft) spent less time listening to people who don’t really add value, we executed faster and introduced a superior product everyone wanted. Then came Windows 8.

At the same time Microsoft was developing Windows 8, Apple was on their meteoric rise and all eyes were on Steve Jobs and his autocratic style.  It became even more reinforced inside of Microsoft that one of the keys to success was to basically, act like Apple.  No one actually said “we need to be more like Apple” but I was told, “Look at Apple, they do that, and it’s working great for them.” And then the Windows 8 started.

Windows 8 was the first major Windows UI overhaul since DOS.  It went from keyboard, mouse, icons and folders centricity to touch, swipes, charms and live tiles. The application development tools changed completely.  ARM support was added.  Literally, everything about Windows changed from top to bottom.  At a time like this, Microsoft needed early, widespread, inclusive communications with the entire ecosystem, not exclusive, secretive communications of the Windows 7 era. The result is what you see today, where it appears Microsoft can’t seem to get a break.  The 100M licenses sold that many companies would kill for gets picked apart, admission of Windows 8 challenges gets “I told you so’s”, and people are calling Windows Blue the Windows 8 that should have been.

You see, this has very little to do with the product itself and is a result of years of Microsoft trying to adopt many of Apple’s characteristics I outline above. This has unfortunately created a negative environment where the ecosystem, because they don’t feel heard or a part of creating Windows 8, doesn’t feel ownership of Windows 8.  It’s a disconnected relationship, like a distant cousin. Anyone like me who was a very strong part of the Windows ecosystem for years knows exactly what I am talking about.

While I will save for a future post exactly what I would do to turn this around, I will say this is all about carving out that unique positioning and acting on it.  There still exists a need for an inclusive and over-communicative tech giant, and it’s up to Microsoft and Google to determine who wants to take it. I have seen some positive signs coming out of Microsoft that they would like to head in this direction, but we will all need to wait and see.  Don’t forget, only Apple can play Apple.