Brands that bind…and when they slide


My little world has been a Microsoft shop for a very long time. It’s a decision I made in the early days when forced to choose between an Apple or a PC. If I wanted to live in a world of third party innovation, the choice was clear. The PC decision helped make another decision. For unsophisticated users, there was one operating system and its name was Microsoft. And this decision helped make yet another decision: the M/S Office Suite…my version of “keep it simple, stupid.” Like the millions of people who shot the rapids of this “decision cascade,” I was now a Microsoft man.

There were plenty of irritations with life with Microsoft. I am still astonished how bad PowerPoint is from a design point of view. With these multiples, Microsoft could have hired Louise Fili or Milton Glazer, and the virtual world of the corporation would now be vastly more visual. Actually, because form is content, America would now actually be vastly more conceptual. But, no. The PowerPoint templates were clearly designed by that special someone who did Travelodge napkins and match books in the1960s. Talk about a difference that makes a difference! Talk about critical path dependency! PowerPoint reproduced Microsoft’s limitations, and helped to install them in the American mind.

Still, PowerPoint was an improvement on the Lotus equivalent. I forget what this was called but it was so utterly unpredictable that I discovered belatedly that presentations would not be forthcoming unless you got a group of people to lay their hands on the printer and chant in Latin. (This was not in the manual, unless it was cunningly secreted there in invisible ink, perhaps on the page that read ‘this page left deliberately blank.”)

Anyhow, to use the language of marketing, Microsoft was producing enough value that I was inclined to stick with it. And this despite the fact that the value was unsecured by robust brand meaning. There would be moments I would imagine that I knew what “Microsoft” was, and on these occasions I was almost certainly conflating the brand and its founder. Both the man and the brand were, I supposed, miraculously smart, competitive, a little cranky, pugnacious, unforgiving. Microsoft didn’t want me to love it. It was too smart, too aggressive for that. But it expected me to be smart enough to see that it was the power and the glory, and that I had put myself in good company. But even this began to darken. Microsoft, I began to think, was now probably like the Bill of middle age: rich, complicated, and too distracted for me to grasp…or for him to act.

New programs would come and go. I noticed the rise of Linux and other competitors, but, like millions of others, I thought “close enough is good enough.” I was still a Microsoft man.

Bam! In one week, I defected twice. I left Outlook for Gmail. And I left Explorer for FireFox. The immediate cause was spam. The deeper cause: my confidence in Microsoft now had the stability of a California split level teetering on a rain soaked hill side. Yes, I heard that Bill Gates was now thoroughly steamed about spam. But even this, a direct intersession from Zeus himself, would not change things. It was too little, too late. There are “Port 25” solutions now being implemented, relatively simple ways to deal with spam. Why didn’t Gates give us “Port 25” solutions a year ago? This is what industry leaders are for. This is what really smart people do.

It’s not that I have a San Simeon view of Microsoft, that Gates and his lieutenants now wander the halls of their magnificent accomplishment but no longer fully manage or control it. Yes, it is. I think I ceased to believe that Microsoft was fully in charge of Microsoft. If it could endure a universe in which an unprotected PCs on line will be attacked by viruses once every 60 minutes (or whatever it is), than something was really kind of screwed up. And don’t tell me that Microsoft was now the captive of the third party supplier universe it had helped created. That’s what those mountainous cash reserves were for. Buy Symantec and be done with it.

The thing about innovations is that it hard to eat just one. No sooner had I abandoned Outlook and Explorer than I began to think about whether there isn’t a better word processor and spread sheet out there. And it wasn’t long before I then began to wonder whether I should sell the handful of shares I have in Microsoft. If I can throw off inertia and walk out of this brand house, there are millions poised to do the same. Indeed, Microsoft has lost market share to Mozilla for 8 straight months. Mozilla has only around 5% of the market, but it is growing at a rate of .5 to 1 per cent a month. After enduring years of put upon loyalty, the Microsoft consumer is ripe for exit.

I can’t help thinking what would have happened if the branding had been a little better. I mean what would have happened if Bill had gone out and hired a good brand man, a Sergio Zyman, for instance, while he was out hiring Milton Glaser? In the big picture, there just ain’t no telling. The little picture: I’d still be running a Microsoft shop.


McGann, Rob. 2005. FireFox adoption shows signs of cooling. Clickz.

11 thoughts on “Brands that bind…and when they slide

  1. Matt

    Microsoft didn’t solve the spam problem because they can’t. Nobody whose decisions actually _matter_ in the email world trusts them, and so Microsoft has a negligible share of the email infrastructure.

    And no, “better branding” would not change that.

  2. Matt

    Microsoft didn’t solve the spam problem because they can’t. Nobody whose decisions actually _matter_ in the email world trusts them, and so Microsoft has a negligible share of the email infrastructure.

    And no, “better branding” would not change that.

  3. Grant

    Debbie, thanks, beauty, I had heard that Byrne had embraced Powerpoint, and I always thought there was something a little strange about the guy, and what a stat: 30 million powerpoint presentations world wide a day! The horror! The tedium! A crime against the species, to be sure. Thanks. Grant

    Matt, I guess I have a broader notion of branding than you do. Good branding would have discovered what and who the consumer wanted Microsoft to be and helped make it so. This would have meant, trust building, spam intercession and other things. Branding isn’t, or shouldnt be, lies and concealment and glad handing. It’s about responsiveness. Thanks. Grant

  4. nathan

    “No sooner had I abandoned Outlook and Firefox”…

    I think you meant “abandoned Outlook and IE”.

    Goes to show how powerful Firefox’s branding is: Firefox is now your subconsious default browser.

  5. Rob

    The problem with Microsoft is that they have so many interests and you never know how you line up with them. Spam is one. Apple has had killer anti-spam stuff in their Mail app for years, but Outlook lags. You know this isn’t due to lack of technical expertise, it must be something else.

    Another is pop-up blocking. Safari and Firefox have been blocking pop-up windows for at least a year, maybe two. IE could be there in a heartbeat, but it isn’t. Why? Oh, I don’t know, does MSN or some other MS site use pop-ups to generate revenue? Could be…

    I suggest you try something. Pick up one of those cheap new Mac Minis and try using it, just as an experiment. Don’t switch whole hog, that’s too risky. Just give it a spin. Write a paper and make your own PDF without any add-ons. Try out iTunes. Make a movie out of some of your pictures and score it with something you download from iTunes (that Ken Burns effect makes it seem like a movie, even with stills). See how your digital camera likes iPhoto.

    A lot of people are finding that they like the Mac it a lot better. You might not, but you never know. Speaking for myself, I’m an old Mac hand. At work, though, for about six or seven years I had to use PCs. Then I got a job where I got to use Macs again and it was like a breath of fresh air.

    Here’s another thing, typing in “uptime” to a terminal window, I get:

    20:26:53 up 69 days, 9:24, 1 user, load average: 0.01, 0.01, 0.00

    It’s not MS’s fault, maybe, that they are under siege from assorted malware, but they are. Why not just choose not to deal with it anymore? If there were two kinds of TVs in the world and one could be taken over by bad people in Rumania at the drop of a hat and the other couldn’t, wouldn’t that be a factor in your purchase?

  6. Tom Asacker

    Grant. I’m having promlems with your blog in IE (doesn’t load fully, problems posting, etc.). Perhaps Big Brother caught wind of your blog. 😉

  7. nathan

    Good point about “aligned interests” Rob. This is a big part of why the open source movement is so great. Developers of free, open source software just want to do the best work. They can take the time to things right, they don’t have to make shareholders happy, they just have to write software that they themselves would want to use.

    Compare this to Intuit, who are BREAKING Quicken software users have already paid for in an attempt to coerce users and banks into costly “upgrades”. Info here:

  8. Axel Kassel

    Re quest for better word processor and spreadsheet.

    The free beta Version 2.0 of the OpenOffice suite seems very capable. It reads and writes to MS and many other formats, and even has a built-in PDF generator, making it an excellent vehicle for simple publishing.

    Visit and take a look.

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