Only Apple Can Play Apple

Patrick Moorhead / May 14th, 2013

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.

Patrick Moorhead

Patrick Moorhead was ranked the #1 technology industry analyst by Apollo Research for the U.S. and EMEA in May, 2013.. He is President and Principal Analyst of Moor Insights & Strategy, a high tech analyst firm focused on the ecosystem intersections of the phone, tablet, PC, TV, datacenter and cloud. Moorhead departed AMD in 2011 where he served as Corporate Vice President and Corporate Fellow in the strategy group. There, he developed long-term strategies for mobile computing devices and personal computers. In his 11 years at AMD he also led product management, business planning, product marketing, regional marketing, channel marketing, and corporate marketing. Moorhead worked at Compaq Computer Corp. during their run to the #1 market share leader position in personal computers. Moorhead also served as an executive at AltaVista E-commerce during their peak and pioneered cost per click e-commerce models.
  • Rich

    How did Microsoft get to this point? By introducing products the market doesn’t go for.

  • steve_wildstrom

    I think the high point of Microsoft listening was actually the launch of Windows 95. I was brand new as a technology columnist when I got involved in the “Chicago,” the code name for Win 95, beta test. This was still a real beta test, in the sense that you had to be invited and agree to at least some non-disclosure, but it was very large and included a lot of people from outside Microsoft. This was more than a year before launch. Testers got regular new builds–near the end, two or three a week–which, since most people were still living on dialup or, at best partial-T1 connections, arrived on CD by FedEx. Most important, there was a private Compuserve forum–wikis hadn’t been invented yet–on which testers, developers, and product managers all participated. There was a lot of competition to catch bugs and Microsoft actually listened to suggestions.

    The result was that when Win 95 finally launched, it was a remarkably clean product. And, of course, it was a fabulous success. (Followed by the disaster known as Cairo, but that’s another story.)

    • Great addition, Steve. I was a lowly PC OEM at Compaq but I saw the same thing.

  • Defendor

    I really don’t see it that way. The Windows 8 launch was the antithesis of Apple.

    Without checking dates, I believe it was well over a year between MS first demo of Windows on ARM, until Windows 8 was released, there was a constant stream of information/hype building for a crazy long time. There were certainly holes in that information, but it looked more like this was caused by Microsoft themselves not knowing (internal battles on direction, and unknown how much would be completed on time to ship) the final shape of Windows 8 (particularly on ARM), until much closer to launch.

    IMO this is the exact opposite of Apple, it is communicating before they even have their internal strategy straightened out.

    Apple Never says anything until the product is ready to ship in a week on Hardware, or they are clear where the software is going (OS development).

    MS might be trying to play Apple on many fronts, but keeping things secret until they are done, isn’t one of them.

    • steve_wildstrom

      I’ll come down somewhere between you and Pat. The Windows 8 development process was certainly more open than anything Apple has done in a very long time. In particular, Steven Sinofsky’s Building Windows 8 blog kept anyone who was interested informed about major decisions and the rationale for them.

      Where I think Microsoft went wrong was in not listening to the feedback this openness generated. Lot’s of people expressed lots of concerns in response to both posts and the developer and consumer previews. There was especially a lot of concern about Windows RT, including lots of objections to the name. But Microsoft just didn;t seem to take any of this feedback, which accurately predicted the customer response we have seen since launch, very seriously–at least not seriously enough to make changes.

      • Rich

        The purpose of the Windows 8 blog was probably not to gather feedback but simply to let everyone know what Microsoft intended to do. The company’s problem is their belief that only they, and no one else, know what the market wants. Bill Gates’ genuinely shocking recent statements on CNBC show this clearly. As long as Microsoft continues this arrogance, their products will face limited acceptance.

        • steve_wildstrom

          The irony is that nowhere has that attitude ever been stronger than at Apple. The difference is that Apple, or at least Steve Jobs, really did have the ability–most of the time, anyway–to figure out what customers wanted before they knew it themselves.

          What’s odd about Microsoft’s current position is that the company always listened, almost certainly too much, to its corporate customers. That’s a main reason it was never able to get rif od the legacy cruft in Windows. With Windows 8, though, it seems to have decided not to listen to anyone. We see the result.

      • Defendor

        I think Microsoft had a lot of internal conflicting voices that would have made listening to exterior voices more difficult.

        I think it will be interesting to see how far Microsoft goes in addressing desktop enthusiast complaints in the 8.1 update. Alienating traditional desktop users pretty deflated the entire 1 Billion dollar ad campaign IMO.

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