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Learning from History

Microsoft is cleverly undermining Apple's "I'm a PC" tagline -- a harbinger of humiliation -- by turning it into a positive affirmation.

One of the most famous maxims is, "Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it." As I watch Microsoft's Windows advertising campaign, I'm getting the idea that maybe the company is learning from history.

This campaign is driven by the success of an advertising campaign about Windows Vista -- by Apple. We know that every ad will end with the hapless PC guy being outfoxed, too often by his own misperception of reality or by his misguided, over-the-top efforts to work around problems -- an all-too-real picture of Microsoft itself.

Two things about this campaign stand out. First, it's not about Vista. Microsoft is looking more broadly at the future and is cleverly undermining Apple's "I'm a PC" tagline -- a harbinger of humiliation -- by turning it into a positive affirmation.

Second, there's the timing. This is the campaign that Microsoft should have done in 2006, before Vista launched. The company unveiled some "Wow is now" advertising at the Vista launch, but that was a year too late. Microsoft never followed through, leaving it up to Apple to do all the Vista television advertising for the last two years.

The Vista campaign goes beyond television advertising, although that's likely to be the most effective component. Other components include placing "gurus" in retail stores to show off Windows PCs and promote OEM hardware that runs Windows well.

The gurus are a good -- if not original -- idea, but Microsoft isn't putting enough wood behind it. The company says it will put 155 gurus into Best Buy, Circuit City and other retail sites. Best Buy alone has more than 900 U.S. stores. Do the math. Using reference designs to create PCs that work well could lead to more positive experiences for customers who want to make hardware investments shortly before they're outdated by a new version. It also flatters Apple by imitation again -- Microsoft has decided that the way to make sure an advanced OS delivers maximum usability is to keep a tight grip on the hardware.

But this approach deprecates what has been Microsoft's greatest gift to the world. The genesis of Microsoft's success was the insight that it could build a business on software alone. That statement may seem incredibly obvious now, but in the late 1970s, virtually all software was written for a specific computer. Redmond's idea that it could write and successfully sell software that would run on as broad a range of hardware as possible was the big bang of personal computerdom, touching off an explosion of hardware innovation and rapid price reductions, and ultimately resulting in a computer on every desk.

We still want that. Microsoft's mistake wasn't losing control of the hardware -- its mistake was to produce an OS with a complex and novel driver model, layer on a demanding new graphical interface and play hide-and-seek with the specifications release.

So that's another lesson from history to be learned. Let's not pretend that it's 2006 and it's time to tell people about Vista. Let's pretend instead that it's 2008 and nearly 2009, and Microsoft is within a year of releasing a new OS. Hardware partners will have access to reference designs, complete documentation and stable builds at least three months before it's released to manufacturing. Microsoft will build anticipation in the retail channel and through advertising. Partners will get the fussy technical details that their customers demand, and they'll understand the SKUs and licensing. Your midmarket and small business partners will be able to explain to their customers, in language they can understand, why Microsoft products are still a great choice.

About the Author

Paul DeGroot is principle consultant with Pica Communications, which provides consulting services for customers with complex Microsoft licensing issues.

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