It's been nearly 10 years since the launch of Windows 95, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer pointed out during a speech at the company's TechEd conference for IT pros in Orlando, Fla. this week. That operating system (and credit Ballmer and Bill Gates with figuring out how to market a computer operating system) possibly represented the apotheosis of Microsoft's marketing clout. Stores opened at midnight to sell the thing, and newspapers and airwaves flowed over with stories about Redmond's latest wonder.
But something happened along the way from then till now, and what Microsoft's gained in market share and wealth it's arguably lost in the less tangible category of buzz. Apple Computer and Google have it, and Microsoft wants some of it back.
In an InformationWeek story I wrote Monday based on an interview with Ballmer here, he pointed to the 50-to-1 sales advantage Windows PCs have over Macs, and argued for Microsoft's clear lead over Google in selling information searching to businesses. The same day, Apple CEO Steve Jobs' speech in San Francisco to announce plans for Intel-based Macs pushed Ballmer's speech a few notches down in the online headlines. By the way, lots of people read those headlines on Google News. What's more, a handful of bright Microsoft minds have left and gone to Google. So what's a company with Microsoft's brimming belief in itself to do?
For one, it's redefining the jobs young smarties out of college are taking. Like most tech companies, Microsoft is having its recruiting troubles. But it also realizes young workers talk differently and compute differently than even those who've reached the not-so-advanced age of 35. So it's finding ways to weave instant messaging into its jobs, for instance. Ballmer says IM is a "basic communications medium" for people in their early 20s entering the workforce, and "a good example of trying to make the job more natural -- you could say more fun." As a point of comparison, Ballmer recounted his early days at Proctor & Gamble in the late '70s endlessly rewriting memos before they got sent up the corporate chain, when "cut and paste" meant using Xacto knives and Mylar boards. Microsoft doesn't want the 2005 equivalent of that process getting between it and good talent.
Secondly, Microsoft is trying to re-capture some of that Windows 95 flair by marketing its operating system—and other products—to consumers again. Its "start something" ad campaign aims to show how young, urban, well-dressed people use Windows PCs to mix music, research travel destinations, and plan dinner parties. Never mind that all the people I know like that are using Macs; it's a start. Microsoft's also trying to expand the reach of its new Xbox 360 beyond geeky computer gamers. "We'll learn some new skills, or relearn them," Ballmer says. "You could say that Windows and Office started out very much marketed to consumers 15, 20 years ago, and they morphed to be much more marketed to IT people over the years." If Microsoft can tap into some of the hipness Apple and Google stole, it could ease the path for attracting new customers and talent.