As the dust settles from the latest Apple lovefest/product launch I want to reflect briefly on the opportunity it opens for Microsoft (or marketing in general).

The Apple Watch (not the iWatch of course, because eye wash might have been too close to the bone) is a joke, but that won’t stop it selling to the Apple sheep by the bucketload, albeit a smaller bucketload than previous “new” devices which had a more apparent usefulness. It’s a tribute to Apple’s marketing prowess that it can get away with pushing out something so naff, and not be treated with the scorn it deserves.

I’m more interested in the hype around the new MacBooks, where Tim Cook, taking a leaf from his old boss’s playbook, claims to have “reinvented the notebook”.

It should be said that Apple does know how to make a lovely looking laptop, and the new MacBooks are no exception. They are expensive, certainly, and that’s part of the point. But “reinventing”? How’s that then Tim? They are a refinement, for sure, but that wouldn’t sound so good, would it?

Or would it? There are some good points to be made about the new machines (as well as some bad). They don’t need the hype, though things have got so stupid that if Cook didn’t hype it people might think there was something seriously wrong with it. All the same if Cook stood there and said “this is the most beautiful, refined computer notebook ever produced” that wouldn’t have sounded so bad, and would have had the virtue of being an arguable claim.

Curiously too it’s straying into Microsoft territory, who are busy trying to own the concept of “reinventing productivity”. Reinvention then seems to be the buzzword of the moment, perhaps because when you think about it, it’s actually as nebulous as it is grand. Productivity was never invented in the first place, so it’s hard to see how it could be reinvented. Or think about that reinvented notebook: what would that be like? Perhaps something made of paper with a spiral binding?

These questions matter. Because it’s not really clear how the claim of reinvention applies it’s not really clear enough what the new Microsoft is trying to be, what it stands for. There’s a thought in there about helping people to do things more efficiently and effectively, and a related technical thought about cloud services and platform/device independence. The link between these ideas deserves (and needs) better expression than the platitude of “reinvention”, all the more so because behind the bullshit Microsoft is actually doing something more impressive and inventive than Apple has done for years.

I use the technical preview of Windows 10 every day. There are many rough edges, but it’s a big step forward on Windows 8. It could indeed change how we use different bits of technology to be productive. But it’s not so much the functionality that’s striking, as the apparent attitudes behind it. The tech preview is a big programme, and its leaders in Microsoft have been very good about talking to the community, saying what’s going on, soliciting feedback. Although the odd bit of “reinventing productivity” bullshit slips in, those people for the most part have been able to talk naturally and in their human voices, explaining what they’re trying to do, why they’re not trying to do other things. It’s all very agreeable, very engaging, and marks a very different way of trying to relate to your customer base.

It’s a way of making real that elusive ambition (for large corporates at least) to have something resembling “co-creation”, at a point where it can be meaningful in the product development cycle.

It also contrasts pointedly with the persistence of some old school thinking in the company. I completed a survey yesterday in which Microsoft asked how it could better “meet my needs”, but that seems a blinkered way of understanding what is potentially a richer customer relationship. Technology doesn’t answer a need in the way that food or a car might do; there’s a mutually influential relationship between what the technology can do and what I might want to do with it, a constantly evolving relationship (though I doubt those “needs” will ever extend to a smartwatch, or anything like it). Microsoft needs to be thinking how it can work with me, and about how I can then work with the things they want to offer. Its marketing people should be paying more attention to what their technical colleagues are doing, and learn from them.

Again this is not simply a matter of different words meaning more or less the same thing. There are conceptual differences which demand (and will reward) attention. The survey reflects a view of a customer relationship as something essentially static, where the company carries out what is more or less a “requirements capture”, and then tries to push its “solutions” in response (all the more worrying when you consider that this static model of requirements capture is the primary reason so many large software projects fail).

The Windows 10 preview programme is following a very different path, where ideas can be tested collaboratively and iteratively, using social media and the openness made possible by the internet. At least part of Microsoft is quietly reinventing itself as an organisation of effective modesty and transparency. It’s been forced into this position because of the failure of Windows 8 and its weakness in phones/tablets (despite its persistent wider market presence), but it looks and sounds like a better company for it.

It still faces a difficult challenge in the way it redesigns its revenue model; there’s a big issue in the software world around how you attract continuing revenues when your products are so mature that there’s no longer very compelling reasons to upgrade them with newer versions. The dishonest thing is to announce that what was a product is now a service, and charge your customers for the fact that you continue to exist. There’s no real value for the customer in that forced relationship change. I hope Microsoft will learn from from what it’s being doing with Windows 10 to reinvent its customer relationships, and develop a revenue model to match.

As a footnote I’ll say one thing more about the Apple Watch. The watch isn’t just an entry into a new category. With its $17000 variant Apple has chosen to jump from being a premium brand to a luxury brand. It’s likely to have a minuscule impact on the bigger scheme of Apple revenues, so it has to have been a move of calculated importance for the brand.

There’s a world of difference between “premium” and “luxury”. “Premium” remains within the world of the rational; in theory at least you’re paying for superior components, design and performance. Luxury on the other hand is about ostentation, about conspicuous consumption, especially when it’s applied to computer technology, because that technology is likely to be obsolete in a couple of years. The luxury version of the Apple Watch really is for people who have so much money that they can blow $17000 on something effectively ephemeral. It aligns Apple not with superlative design, but with the wrong side of an increasingly problematic social divide. In terms of brand positioning this seems a big mistake, and I can’t believe that Steve Jobs would have been happy with it. Perhaps the core brand will be strong enough to survive this aberration, for it to be seen as an aberration. If it isn’t it may be seen by future commentators as the point where Apple really lost the plot.


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