Friday, July 25, 2008

Cue The Maniacal Laughter!

Noted a couple of pieces of news this week that really got my sense of humor going.

First, newly installed Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer noted in an internal memo to MS employees that the company was launching a plan to improve customers' end-to-end experience with MS Windows. Apparently, this plan has two prongs:

1. Communicate with hardware vendors to provide a more consistent hardware basis for Windows installations, in theory reducing the headaches users have experienced when installing or upgrading to Windows Vista on their existing PC hardware.

2. Launching a series of advertisements directly challenging the perception of Vista as kludgy and troublesome.

To which my response is this:


For starters, Ballmer clearly likes his spin; in his memo, he talks about how "we outsell Apple 30-to-1", but that's only true if you consider the world-wide market, and if you assume every machine not sold with MacOS comes with Windows pre-installed. According to IT News, who gets their info from IDC, Apple has a bit over 3% of the global market for personal computers. Of course, Apple has about 8% of the US market and growing according to the same source, so...yeah.

The more significant point, however, is that if Ballmer is hoping to duplicate Apple's tight hardware control -- after all, the same company making MacOS is making the computers that run it -- he's got a long way to go, and a lot of corporate partners to offend. It'll likely be easy for the big-name manufacturers to follow any directives from MS, given that their current offerings seem to work pretty well with Vista as it is. However, the biggest PC makers -- HP, Dell, Acer, Lenovo (maker of the ThinkPad now that IBM has gotten out of the business), and Toshiba -- account for just over half of the world market for PCs and servers. The rest of the market is crawling with bargain-basement manufacturers that throw together whatever hardware they can get their hands on cheaply and throw Windows on top. None of these guys individually is all that large, but if MS's directive to standardize hardware sends even half of them out of business (because they can't make their margins using stardardized hardware), that's a potential loss of as much as 20% of the global market. MS is betting that HP, Dell, and the like can fill in to pick up the slack, but my guess is that Apple is just hoping for an opportunity like that to push its own desktops, laptops, and servers into a larger share of the global market.

Which, of course, assumes that such a directive is actually enforceable. After all, similar strong-arm tactics performed by MS, including requirements on how to present the OS, what programs could and could not be pre-installed, etc., have been investigated all over the world and found to be anti-competitive. And though MS's legal problems at home have declined somewhat during the Bush years, all indications are that a far less friendly administration may end up taking over the White House starting in 2009, so any renewal of MS's old-fashioned monopolistic practices may do way more harm than good, in both the short and long runs.

Let's also not forget that MS is looking to bring those smaller, cheaper manufacturers into line at precisely the same moment that some PC market observers are predicting that a slowing global economy will make those manufacturers more attractive to consumers, as price becomes a bigger selling point than brand.

On the whole, point one looks to be impossible to achieve, and likely to cause a whole lot of damage in the process of making it work. (Not entirely unlike installing some Windows applications, but I digress...)

Point two, on the other hand, is ludicrous. The best explanation as to why comes from Mac site "", which points out that phase one of the ad campaign is basically complete misdirection. Windows Vista has a poor reputation among PC folks for a number of reasons: installation on legacy hardware is difficult, driver support for non-standard hardware is spotty, memory requirements are obnoxious, security enhancements are annoying and largely ineffective. To combat this 'negative perception' of Vista in the market, MS is presenting a series of ads featuring people who dislike Vista who are shown a new OS by MS called 'Mojave' -- once the observers express their interest in the new OS, they're told, hey, it's just Vista! It's better than you think, isn't it?

Such an ad campaign may make the Windows fanboys happy, but I doubt it'll actually make much of an impact on MS's bottom line. Why? It's the central message. Compare:

- Apple's 'Genius' ads of the late 90's had a central message of 'we design our computers for the smartest, most creative people in history. Is that you?'

- Apple's 'I'm a Mac/I'm a PC' ads have a central message of 'Macs are fun, hip, and simple to use; PCs are cantankerous and spend a lot of time complaining'


- MS's 'Vista is the new Folger's' ad has a central message of 'Hey! Vista doesn't suck as much as you think it does!'

Granted, Bare Bones Software gets a lot of mileage out of 'it doesn't suck' as a marketing blurb for their flagship product, BBEdit, but they have two advantages over MS:

1. They're marketing to a small portion of users who need a product that's reliable, functional, and stays out of their way, not to a mass-market audience looking for a replacment for Microsoft Word, and

2. their product doesn't actually suck.

So that news was worth a few laughs. Then I see word of a speech given by Mark Shuttleworth, founder of Canonical, the company that distributes Ubuntu Linux in which Shuttleworth calls for open-source Linux developers to focus on the Linux UI, asking "Can we not only emulate, but blow right by Apple?"


Sorry, lost consciousness for a second there.

The simple answer to Shuttleworth's question is 'No'. The more complete answer requires you to understand two things:

1. Linux developers, for the most part, are not interested in the UI.

This is not to say that Linux developers are all knuckle-dragging atavists who long for the return of the days of Big Iron, but rather, in recognizing that if those developers were interested in doing UI work rather than 'productive' work on things like drivers and applications, they'd already be developing for other platforms. They might not be Mac developers, but the Mac is far from the only OS known for great OS support -- there are still active Amiga developer groups out there, for instance.

The best Linux UIs available are basically cleaner versions of the Windows 2000 user interface, which as far as I can tell is about all the farther most Linux developers care to work on the UI. Guys who are passionate about UI programming? They get hired by Apple. Which leads into the next point:

2. Apple is actually still out there and likely isn't planning to stop running any time soon.

Let me illustrate this point by way of analogy: Say you're planning to run a race against a friend -- a marathon, perhaps. On the day of the race, you decide to walk the first 10 miles at a leisurely pace while your friend runs at a competent marathoner's pace. By the time you finish your 10 miles, your friend is far ahead of you. You're not going to catch him by the end of the race. Even if the race were to be extended forever, you're not going to catch him unless you're actually a faster, more conditioned runner than he is and can maintain a faster pace until you pass him.

Did I mention that the guys who are really passionate about UI programming tend to get hired by Apple?

It's always nice when the tech news provide you with unexpected humor.

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