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6/20/2005
03:05 PM
Rob Enderle
Rob Enderle
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Mr. Enderle Goes To Redmond

Rob Enderle has a four-step plan to give Microsoft an edge against Linux. None of the steps have much to do with technology -- that's exactly the point.

I've spent a good portion of my life covering technology, and one of my passions is understanding how human behavior enables one product to succeed over another. Historically, the best technology doesn't always win these contests, and learning why is important to anyone trying to pick the winners and losers in future competitions.

When I look at the running battle between Microsoft and Linux, I'm fascinated by the missteps both sides have made. This month, I thought it would be interesting to lay out the strategy that I would use to beat Linux if I were the head of Microsoft. (I know that the Microsoft folks just love it when people do this.)

What I Wouldn't Do
Microsoft today is doing two things I absolutely would not do. First, I wouldn't fund studies that concluded I had the better product. Even when these studies are accurate, their funding souce invalidates them, since the reader has no way to identify or to factor out the obvious biases. In addition, vendor-funded research may discredit even independent research that reaches similar conclusions, actually making it harder for Microsoft to promote its products.

Strangely enough, I strongly doubt that any Microsoft executive would ever use such a study to choose between two IT vendors. In fact, I feel sorry for a young Microsoft executive who walks into Steve's or Bill's office and tries to justify a large acquisition with research funded by one of the vendors involved in the deal! Neither one of these folks tolerates stupidity, and using vendor-sourced research to make decisions is an incredibly stupid idea.

I also would never use a broad slogan, like "Get the Facts." The next time you argue with your spouse, see for yourself why it's a bad idea: Tell them, "If you just had the facts, you'd agree with me." Odds are, that argument will go south fast.

In Transactional Analysis, this style of argument is called the "Parent/Child" approach. Trained negotiators avoid it like the plague: It implies that the other party is stupid, because they clearly don't have "the facts." It also has an incredibly arrogant undertone which, when used in a family argument, often escalates the hostilities.

In short, I think Microsoft is doing a stand-up job of encouraging people to try Linux. If I ran the company (not that I'm even remotely qualified to do so), I'd like to think I could do better.

How Microsoft Can Beat Linux
Getting the upper hand against Linux is similar to winning a political campaign: Both contests are more about perception in some ways than they are about reality. Right now, a popular perception is, "Linux/Open Source = Good" against "Microsoft/Proprietary = Bad." Nothing is ever that black-and-white; I would attack both of these assumptions, improving Microsoft's image while also persuading people to view Linux as a personal threat.

Step One: Show Humanity
First, I'd allow the Microsoft folks to be themselves. Currently, they are so carefully managed by PR handlers that they often look phony and insincere. I would also discontinue the practice of signing Microsoft employees' names to letters actually written by Microsoft's PR staff, and I would let them write from the heart. Granted, they would make mistakes, but they would also appear more human. While their frustration would show more often, so would their personalities -- and generally these aren't really bad people.

That's true of Microsoft's top management, as well. This is a company whose chairman spends a fortune providing food and medicine to underdeveloped countries, and unlike some executives, he has always focused on providing the food and medicine rather than trying to push his own company's technology. Microsoft executives don't line their own pockets at the expense of their employees and stockholders, and I know of only one executive, who is no longer with the company, who ever received what I would call an exorbitant salary.

Finally, when others accuse Microsoft of wrongdoing, the alleged victim is almost always a competitor. By comparison, another, more popular firm (named after a fruit) has a reputation for going after its partners and some of its most devoted fans, and its own retailers have targeted it with lawsuits.

Step Two: Show A Sense Of Humor
Most of us who follow Microsoft closely know that its employees share a unique sense of humor. Microsoft employees have a knack for poking fun at themselves and at competitors in the videos they make for trade shows and other events. They leave audiences laughing, and they also leave them with a more positive impression of Microsoft.

Laughing like this with a company can go a long way towards dispelling misgivings about it, and it is really hard to hate a firm whose employees can make fun of themselves. Most of Microsoft's competitors, and especially the Linux folks, are neither willing nor able to laugh at themselves . I would make sure more people noticed this difference in order to make Microsoft appear more approachable and far less arrogant.

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