Microsoft is doing something half right

Ever since Bill Gates stepped down and Steve Ballmer took over his role, Microsoft has been getting one thing after another wrong. Vista continues to be a disaster both for users and for the company’s bottom line. And Microsoft’s ad campaign last year, starring Gates and Jerry Seinfeld, is already a model of how not to do television advertising. Somehow, though, after years of stumbling around like a drunken college freshman after an NCAA basketball win, Microsoft is getting its act together.

First, Microsoft has reluctantly — oh how reluctantly — brought back Windows XP. Officially, Microsoft has cut XP support. Unofficially, hardware vendors such as Hewlett-Packard aren’t going to let XP die anytime soon. You’ll still be getting new PCs with XP on them well into 2010, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see fresh copies of XP appearing in 2011.

Microsoft finally got it. No one with two brain cells wants Vista.

What’s more amazing to me, though, is that Microsoft finally figured out that after Vista, no one wants a long, drawn-out rollout of a new Windows operating system. So, instead of orchestrating its traditional years-long series of preannouncements and announcements, Microsoft is just focusing on getting Windows 7 — a.k.a. Vista Lite — out as fast as possible, with as little official fanfare as possible.

That doesn’t mean Microsoft hasn’t been advertising Windows 7. But buying time on television and space in magazines might make more people realize just how thoroughly Microsoft has given up on Vista. Instead, Microsoft is “advertising” the upcoming release by leaking betas almost every week — and will soon do the same with release-candidate builds.

It’s funny that some people actually think that anyone is “pirating” Windows 7 betas. It’s clear that Microsoft is deliberately leaking them to build up buzz around the new operating system. Don’t believe me?

Then why does Microsoft give away free authentication keys that will let any copy of Windows 7 work? If the company didn’t want those copies of Windows 7 out there, it wouldn’t do that. This tactic is fairly subtle: By making people work — but not too hard — to get copies of Windows 7, Microsoft is leading them to believe that they’re onto something special. And since it has been a long, long time since anyone thought there was something special about Windows, this is savvy marketing on Microsoft’s part.

(Mind you, I’ve been running Windows 7 for quite some time now on a variety of test boxes, and it’s not all that great. It’s better than Vista, but that’s really not saying much. For my money, XP SP3 is still the best of the Windows family.)

Finally, Microsoft has also come up with a winning set of TV ads. The ones with the cute kids are, well, cute, and the Mac attack ads do make the point that PCs really are cheaper than Apple’s proprietary hardware. However, if you’re a thinking user, you’ll realize that you get what you pay for and that Macs really are better than low-cost PCs. And if you’re a thinking user who wants a really low-cost PC, you don’t want Windows anyway — you want desktop Linux.

But Microsoft’s ads aren’t meant for savvy computer users. They’re meant for home users with XP Home and Conficker on their PCs. As long as you don’t look too closely at Microsoft’s offerings, its new marketing and ads are making Windows look good again. Who would have thought that Microsoft could pull the wool over even dumb users’ eyes again? That, nevertheless, is what it’s managing to do.

Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols has been writing about technology and the business of technology since CP/M-80 was cutting-edge and 300bit/sec. was a fast Internet connection — and we liked it! He can be reached at [email protected].

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