Microsoft!

billgatesheadline

An interesting headline in yesteday’s Standard. Something tells me they haven’t quite got the hang of this internet thing.

The huge and hostile $44bn bid Microsoft has planned for Yahoo! will doubtless fuel the ongoing religious debate between the brands.

Google of course has come out with a statement that it has ‘serious concerns’ about the deal.

Bear in mind that this is the company that has been buying everything from video sharing sites to mobile phone companies, that is bidding for a chunk of the radio spectrum in the states, and recently bought one of the internet’s biggest advertising solution providers.

And yet, everything that Google does is met with blithe indifference, while Microsoft is accused of witchcraft and human sacrifice every time they so much as spend a billion pounds.

Doesn’t all of this make us think of what Hugh MacLeod is trying to do with the Blue Monster, allowing the 1,000s of Microsoft staff who – believe it or not – turn up for work everyday full of positive intent to tell their own stories rather than being at the mercy of their detractors and the press.

No zealot like a convert

Apple_MacSE_System_s2

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about what it is that companies like Apple actually do to inspire the kind of religious fervour we’ve seen recently in the lead up to CES, and journalists and fans alike clamber over each other to make wilder and wilder predictions over the next miracle that Jobs will announce.

I’ve been round this loop myself a couple of time. At college we produced the student newspaper in a tatty room in the student union on a couple of Mac SEs. System 7 had just come out and we thought we were right at the cutting edge of technology. Then, as now, we looked down with a kind of pity on the PC people who we suffering with ugly boxes, impossible interfaces, and ‘general protection faults’.

And then Apple started going wrong, and their machines would crash just as much as as the PCs. Then Microsoft got NT4 out. And that really did never crash. And all of a sudden, the mac people seemed like the ones with the slightly deranged thinking. PC people were sensible because the kit was cheaper, and more flexible, and more hackable.

And now of course, it’s back the other way round. Vista’s pretty sucky (although it’s likely to improve dramatically at SP1 – like XP did). OS X is more stable and has reclaimed the interface ground that System 7 had all those years ago.

But of course, it’s not really about which is actually better. In an interesting interview with Gizmodo (where he also admits Vista is not a great product), Bill Gates makes a very interesting point:

“To the degree we can share the risk we’re taking and how our innovation comes through, we get a very positive image; to the degree that someone just got a few error messages or they think all big companies, or some specific thing we did, is arrogant, we get a negative message. It’s all going to be there. Maybe it reached a particular time period when we were having some court cases going on and people thought start ups were the source of all innovation. Xbox has helped, Zune has helped. There is a lot of data that people  have to process when you say ‘What do you think of Microsoft or the people that founded it’

So Apple, Microsoft or whoever might do good things, might do bad things but there will be a lag between what they do and their reputation capital. The brand will be insulated from at least some shocks, because people have a lot of data about it, all added together. So my new shiny iPod Touch has been going through a bit a period of crashing all the time. Does this make me re-evaluate Apple and their engineering standard? Well it will if they don’t get it fixed fairly quickly, but they’ll get away with it for the time being.

And the other thing, is that people strive for internal consistency. And they invested alot – financially and emotionally – in this platform decision. Backing Mac is more than a tech gamble. It’s a statement about the user too. And to change sides means reevaluating yourself as well as the box in the corner of your lounge.

Music business

 Bill Gates with a Zune (photo Reuters)

Couple of good quotes / stories I found in a desperate attempt to do some catch-up reading of my Economist stockpile. Strangely enough both items from the same page in the July 7th issue (p. 69).

In A change of tune  (paywalled), we have Warner Music chairman, Edgar Bronfman saying “The music industry is growing, [but]… The record industry is not growing.” In these few short words, he’s surely captured an important truth.

Interest in music and music listening has probably never been more healthy, but the record companies seem unable to find a role for themselves. The economist writer moves on to suggest that artists will replace their lost (record sale) revenues with tours, merchandise and personal appearances, leaving the labels to become glorified managers. The tracks themselves become marketing material for the artists. Seem far-fetched? Look at how Prince took his latest album to market – as a ‘free’ giveaway on the Mail on Sunday.

An interesting piece, although there remains the huge hole in the rights debate about what on earth might happen to great film and TV shows, how do they get paid for? If we want Studio 60 and The Shawshank Redemption, we’re going to have to fund them.

The second piece is an article about the release of the iPhone: Where would Jesus queue? (also paywalled). Having marvelled at the hype, fervour and – perhaps most impressively – lack of disappointment once in consumers’ hands, which surrounded the launch of the “Jesus phone”, the writer recounts a story from outside the store where he was queing.

It seems a passerby who had just arrived from Mars wanted to know what the queue was for. “What are you all standing in line for?” she asked. The response from some wag in the queue was “Zunes!”. That’s a good joke and it goes to really demonstrate the extent to which Apple has captured the public’s imagination with innovation and great, user-centred design.

The Bill and Steve show

Gates and Jobs (read the body language!)

When it comes to technology innovation, it’s interesting to hear some people still talk about a “five-year plan”. After all, YouTube went from zero to £1.65bn in 18 months. Google only lost their beta tag 7 years ago. Paradigms can change literally overnight.

In this fascinating interview, Jobs and Gates reveal that they’ve not got a clear view five years out, although they both broadly are expecting hardware to continue to evolve in a fairly linear way. Gates is sticking to his software-only stance (noting the exception of the X-box, the new and very exciting surface computing – although I’m not sure why that couldn’t be a pure software play for Microsoft – , a new meeting conference hardware called round table, and of course the ill-fated Zune).

While Jobs is clearly still in the hardware+software mode, he sees software as the driver, simply noting that he will continue to make the “nice boxes”. He sees the ipod’s dominance for example as a result of great software. And indeed the majority of the criticism of the Zune has been software related, and that certainly would seem to be the biggest barrier to adoption.

Both believe that users will continue to have multiple devices. Basically this means a laptop (or tablet), a mobile phone (or “post pc” device as Jobs calls it, pesumably to make the iPhone even more significant) and home entertainment equipment which will include what’s been done with media centre but will also, surely, extend to include ubiquitous computing device like the Surfaces product mentioned above.

As well as 3D visual interfaces, which have not yet lived up to their promise, Gates identified other changes in input method as big driver. In fact he talked about several different input methods – the multi-touch approach that Jeff Haan has been on about for years and appears in Surfaces and on the iPhone; what I would call passive video input – again on Surfaces, this is cameras which map how devices relate to each other (well worth watching the demo for that), and possibly in whatever this conference tool is to identify who’s speaking or presenting; and finally a general nod in the direction of natural language input.

Jobs was very tight lipped about innovation although dropped a few hints about improving .mac, most likely in some sort of 2.0, SNS kind of direction. Hugh MacLeod also spots a vieled comment from Gates about re-entering the internet space with renewed vigour from Gates. I’d guess he’s refering the Live Services platform but who knows, perhaps there’s something else about to be launched. I wonder if Hugh knows more than he’s letting on.

Both men seemed suprisingly oblivious to the threat posed by SaaS to their desktop operating systems, with both citing a mix of local applications with cloud services in support.

Interestingly, Jobs also argued that a turning point for Apple’s corporate strategy was when they realised that their success was not contingent on Microsoft’s failure, although his attempt to characterise the “Mac vs PC” advertising as not attacking Microsoft was rather unsuccessful.

If you can’t beat them

There’s an excellent post on RMM about this video ad (I have very little doubt that the word ‘viral’ was harmed in its creation).

The ad is a take off of the movie, “The Break Up” with the couple discussing divorce representing the egotistical advertising world and the meek engagement-seeking consumer.

As Matt Morrison points out, while the ad is very funny, well done and exposes some deep truths about the modern communications world, it’s not exactly clear what it’s selling. It also falls into a trap of criticising broadcast-style, humor-based, uninteractive advertising with broadcast-style, humor-based, uninteractive advertising.

Matt asks the question about whether it is advertising’s job to have converstations or to start them. The ad’s creators could counter that the ad has its own associated blog site, although the comments on there seem suspiciously one-sided considering how Microsoft is regarded in some quarters.

Anyway, hats off to Microsoft for being brave and for creating an interesting a thought-starting piece. Perhaps it will encourage businesses to set up a “department of listening”, whether its in the advertising and marketing department or not.

What’s the big deal?

aQuantive + Microsoft logo 

When Google bought DoubleClick for $3.1bn in April, aQuantive said it expected its Atlas platform to benefit since advertisers were likely to have concern over impartiality when the world’s biggest ad-serving network is owned by the biggest interactive adveritising seller. It seems highly unlikely when they said this that they weren’t already doing a dance with Microsoft who on Friday has made an offer of $6.1bn for the business.

OK, so here are the numbers. The offer is $66.50 a share (85% more than the stocks previous close price of $35.87). aQuantive is included in AdAge’s top 10 US Marketing organisations and – in addition to ad serving and tracking that everyone has focussed on (primarily Atlas and DrivePM) – contains the US’s biggest and best (according to the very reliable* Forrester Wave Study) web design agency, Avenue A | Razorfish. It is the biggest deal ever done by Microsoft. Indeed it’s is the biggest in history of the advertising industry.

So… why? Whilst Avenue A | Razorfish is clearly a successful and respected agency, it would be difficult to see how Microsoft ownership will improve its fortunes (not a criticism of Microsoft but a reality about creativity in monolithic organisations). And will this really help Microsoft’s bid to sell agencies on recently released Silverlight (and pre-exising WPF) functionalities? Unrealistic as it may be, will agencies be wary of partnering with the software giant amid fears that Microsoft’s agencies might be quietly slipped in?

The real deal is around the larger tracking and adserving platforms. Like Doubleclick and Google, Microsoft will see the deal as an opportunity to know more about users and to better target relevant advertising to them. It’s an enduring oddity that when Google does a multi-billion pound deal, everyone cheers that greater relevance and value will be delivered to customers. When Microsoft does it, we’re all up in arms that the software giant is too powerful.

Analysts have suggested that Microsoft has moved into the advertising business. That gives the impression they’ll move their headquarters to Madison Avenue and all start untucking their shirts. I think they’ve moved into the attenion business, more like a media company than an advertising agency, trying to own the new, targeted canvases of our lives. An expensive gamble perhaps but with all the other options off the table, perhaps one they couldn’t afford not to take, as they become new entrants into the Space Race.

* Sorry that’s an in-joke as Forrester rated my firm very highly in the European version of the study.

See the light

Last week at Mix, Microsoft announced a huge raft of new products. Attendees describe the wave upon wave of releases as somewhat disorientating, overwhelming in its sheer volume so that some of key details may have been overlooked by much of the audience. Certainly many of the developments (like the relationship with Hugh McLeod) point to a corporation which is reassessing its position with consumers and customers.

Silverlight logo

In particular on both, amid the release of Silverlight and Silverlight Streaming Services, as well as the more open Live Services Platform, it seems that much of the audience missed the annoucment of a 50k CLR. For 50k more download than the core Silverlight plugin, users can download a Common Language Runtime (CLR), enabling developers to build multiplatform objects in any supported language (compiled and uncompiled): C#, Java, Ruby and Python. This brings the promise of multi-platform computing which has been talked about for the last ten years to reality (if beta reality).

So while the delegates were talking about whether Silverlight was or wasn’t a “flash killer”, what was really being announced was the death of Java. Or, to put it another way, .net is now a mac development platform.

.net ecosystem

Vista – not bad!

Vista

I’ve got Vista on my laptop at home.

I think I really like it but I’ve started to doubt myself.

 Cool widgets in Vista

Am I crazy!? I’ve just done a google search for “Vista great” and I get no entries that aren’t on the Microsoft sites and several with the word “not” inserted.

It’s quick, its cute, it’s stable. They’ve thought a great deal about the interface. The widgets are fab. It’s very good with pics, music and video.

Is it 10x better than XP? Well no, but then XP was pretty good really. Is it better than the latest Mac? Well I think it’s probably pretty similar because I don’t think we’re looking at a lot of room for improvement.

 Is it excessively chunky – well yes, but 500 terabytes of RAM is now £4.60.