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Computing Thoughts
Fixing the Vista PR Disaster with More Marketing
by Bruce Eckel
July 9, 2008
Microsoft announced a 300 million marketing campaign to stand up to the competitors and critics of Vista. They're going to make Vista good by saying it's good.


My brother, who installs and maintains systems (mostly Windows) for small businesses in the San Diego area and intimately knows about the problems of Vista, sent me this:

Microsoft on Vista: "The time of worry is over"

... Because they say so. Microsoft wants its partners and customers to know that it’s done letting its competitors and critics walk all over Windows Vista.

This isn't just sad. It's getting old. I have found that people who like Vista are those who have low requirements of their computer and have quickly forgotten that they paid for a new faster computer running Vista only to run slower than they did with their old computer running XP.

I previously talked about my own failed attempt to upgrade to Vista.

The "competitors" to Vista are Apple and Linux. And it's always been good PR to stir up those two hornets nests, right? What can that possibly produce but an even bigger storm of negative criticism?

But a larger problem is that the marketing campaign is assuming that there are these isolated "critics" that they can target. Skim through the comments in the above article. Almost universally negative, strongly so. The number of critics are quite large, and the majority seem to be disaffected Microsoft customers who feel they have been abused. Attacking your customers, especially the technically-oriented ones that give advice to the others, is just going to make a bad situation much worse.

Vista was supposed to have all this new technology that really would have been great, but then they couldn't pull it together and stripped it out at the last minute. What was left was full of problems.

Yes, there's an image problem, but not a problem that can be fixed with image marketing. The image problem comes from bad technology. That's what people are basing their buying decisions on, and rightly so. But what isn't talked about is the underlying cause of the bad technology, which is bad management. The Vista project clearly suffered from a lot of "trust us, things will be great" promises by the project managers who were believed by the upper managers, until someone did a demo 6 months before the release date and someone else figured out that things had gone horribly wrong. Clearly they were using the long-iteration approach on the Vista project. (I note the lack of connection between having lots of money and being able to manage well here).

And the Windows XP "End of Sales" approach, a.k.a. "if they won't move to Vista on their own, let's force them" is the pinnacle of idiocy. Take all the XP customers who are still putting up with you and piss them off, too.

There's one final insidious pressure point that will definitely not be mentioned in this campaign, if Microsoft retains any intelligence. This is the increase in cross-platform web applications. And behind that, the increase in power of web application development platforms like Adobe Flex/AIR (and possibly Silverlight until some brilliant upper-management person at Microsoft decides that maintaining cross-platform support is cutting too deeply into Vista revenues). The real threat in these applications is that it doesn't matter what OS you're running.

As a developer, I'm personally more inclined to try to use something like Flex/AIR (at least for the UI, even if the main app is written in something else) for two reasons. First, because the foundation solves the cross-platform problems, I think it tends to make that foundation more robust -- that is, it's less likely I'll have problems. Second, even if there are only a couple of Mac and Linux people in a company or a potential market, the Mac and Linux people haven't been trained by Microsoft to put up with whatever problems are dished out to them, so those people are a pain in the ass. It's much easier just to make things that work for everybody, then everybody tends to be reasonably happy. Make a product that excludes Mac and Linux and you'll hear about it.

My prediction: the 300 million ad campaign will just make things worse. It's throwing good money after bad.

According to Wired Magazine, Apple spent 150 million to develop the iPhone. So 300 million might produce a couple of really innovative products, if Microsoft knew how to innovate. That would be a big PR win, and one that would generate a revenue stream, instead of just throwing it away on the ad company (kudos to the ad company, though -- they clearly know enough about selling to sell this campaign to Microsoft).

To really make a difference, Microsoft would have to do something so radical that upper management would never even consider it. Bite the bullet now rather than taking the bullet later. For example, don't end-of-life XP, apologize for Vista, and start sending out free copies of Vista to customers and potential customers (but only after making the install bulletproof, making sure all the drivers work, etc. -- of course, Windows 7 may just be Vista with that stuff fixed). Then, after regaining goodwill, make it up on Windows 7.

Alas, this approach or anything similarly radical will have significant negative impacts on quarterly profits and ultimately that's what upper management is responsible for (never forget that the true customers of a publicly-held corporation are not the people who buy products, but the shareholders, who can sue the board if their interests are not made first priority). This one factor is a major reason that project management gets corrupted -- "yes, your way might make a better product but it will negatively impact quarterly profits."

I remember when my intuition told me that Microsoft had plateaued. It was back when they seemed to be going strong, and no one believed me; there was no real logical justification (my best intuitions are ones that don't even make sense to me). But something seemed to have shifted -- as if they had made all the forward motion they were going to make, and from now on they were going to just tread water while being carried downstream.

They say you go through 7 stages when something huge changes in your life. I think something like this happens, collectively, in a business. Shock and denial are much the same phase in a business, however, and that's where Microsoft is, and that's what this marketing campaign is about. I don't know what all the rest of the stages are for a business, but I'm pretty certain that the next phase is "reorganization" (roughly the equivalent of "bargaining"). Multiple times, and every one unsuccessful. It will be interesting to see how long it will take before this starts to happen. Reorganization consultants, start your engines!

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About the Blogger

Bruce Eckel ( provides development assistance in Python with user interfaces in Flex. He is the author of Thinking in Java (Prentice-Hall, 1998, 2nd Edition, 2000, 3rd Edition, 2003, 4th Edition, 2005), the Hands-On Java Seminar CD ROM (available on the Web site), Thinking in C++ (PH 1995; 2nd edition 2000, Volume 2 with Chuck Allison, 2003), C++ Inside & Out (Osborne/McGraw-Hill 1993), among others. He's given hundreds of presentations throughout the world, published over 150 articles in numerous magazines, was a founding member of the ANSI/ISO C++ committee and speaks regularly at conferences.

This weblog entry is Copyright © 2008 Bruce Eckel. All rights reserved.

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