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Sunday, December 03, 2006

Microsoft Math: Zune + Vista = Zero

I think it was Richard Nixon who once bemoaned the phrase about it being "lonely at the top." Randy Newman later immortalized the phrase in a wickedly sardonic tune, but nobody has given the theme truer meaning than the boys from Redmond, Washington. In its twentieth year as a public company, Microsoft is causing anything but excitement with two announcements that should be causing all kinds of flurry.

And it's no wonder. Microsoft, one of the world's largest brands with no brand strategy, has no legions of fans eagerly anticipating its next move. In this case, its next move is actually two moves: The release of its Vista operating system and the retail launch of its so-called iPod killer, the Zune. Both of which are being welcomed into the market with a flurry of yawns.

When you read about the launch - or should I say overly-delayed, overly-announced launch - of Vista, there's not a whole lot of good news orbiting the news. Normally, you hear all kinds of spin, mainly about increased functionality or greater resources or lowering the costs of operation. Not this time. This time, the planets circling the press release have more to do with the increased hardware and testing costs of deploying Vista and speculation on the difficulty of its deployment.

That's just what you find in paragraph number one, before anyone even approaches the gossip on how few people actually plan on deploying it.

Meanwhile, in Microsoft's version of retail reality, it has launched the Zune music player, just in time for nobody to buy it for Christmas. You know that you're fighting a losing battle when the best reviewers can say about your new product is that "it could be good, if only...." Of course, there's no brand behind the Zune, so what could people expect? I'll tell you what they can expect: The usual Microsoft spin, where derivative products follow the market instead of leading it.

Forget whether you like Steve Jobs or Bill Gates. The important difference between the two is that Jobs inspires a culture of leadership and creative innovation. Gates, as he has always done, takes the shrewder route, eyeing the success of others and then duplicating it just short of trademark infringement (he did it with Apple's graphical operating system years ago, and for the life of me, I can't figure out why Apple eventually lost that lawsuit).

In any event, you have the typical Microsoft media event happening once again. The party to which everyone shows up early because the drinks are strong and the food is free, but who leave early because there's a better party down the street. You'd think that with all the resources at their disposal, Microsoft would be able to establish itself as a leading brand. But it doesn't, and the reason is agonizingly clear:

Microsoft is not a brand. It's a warehouse with an identity. There's no Microsoft fan base, only hostages held in check by their accounting departments' insistence on purchasing the lowest cost items for their short-term gains. If Microsoft were really a brand, it would have its fans and defenders. As it is, nobody lines up for preview copies of Vista. Nobody rushes down to Best Buy before all the Zunes sell out.

In my business, clients don't contact me when they feel pain. They contact me when the pain is so intense that their balance sheets begin to bleed. When no matter how good their product or how high their budgets, the public just doesn't buy into them.

For my money, Microsoft should be buying bandages in bulk right about now.

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