Microsoft's initial ads for Windows Phone contrast sharply with Apple's, and the
contrast shows why Apple is such a marketing powerhouse and Microsoft...well, isn't.
The first sign of this problem was the Monday unveiling of the first Windows Phone 7 handsets. You can't blame Microsoft's Steve Ballmer for not being Apple's Steve Jobs: no one currently does the Zen Charisma Thing like Jobs. But after waving at the 9 phone models, and mentioning their manufacturers, Ballmer introduced 30-something Joe Belfiore, corporate VP, Windows Phone Program, who then did what he has done repeatedly since WP7 was unveiled last February: show an audience how he uses it.
There was almost nothing about the PHONE itself (I can't tell you what model or even what brand he was using). And Belfiore's demo was almost exactly the same one he's given for months.
AT&T's Ralph de la Vega spoke, and no one would mistake him for Steve Jobs either. Finally, the announcement closed with a video of... talking corporate heads. This was kind of jaw-dropping, actually. Most of them were aging white or Asian executives, from Microsoft's phone manufacturing partners, who all assured us that they thought Windows Phone 7 was terrific.
This was the kind of announcement you expect at Microsoft's annual TechEd user conference: where the audience is, usually, friendly, and many of them are techheads.
The same tone-deaf "messaging" is part of the current ad campaign for Windows Phone 7 handsets. The message is that phone users are locked into their devices, and don't want to be: they want to to know "at a glance" what's new and important to them, without having to hunt around among a flock of apps and tie everything together on their own to figure it out.
So, I get that, as a concept. The Microsoft ads show people peering down into their smartphone screens, in an endless series of serio-comic vignettes, until they collide or zone out or something "bad" happens. Windows Phone 7 will rescue us from all that.
But understanding the concept doesn't mean the concept actually is an important one to smartphone users and buyers. Blogger John Gruber, at DaringFireball.com, thinks the ad he saw is "entertaining" but observes: "But it’s more of an indictment of our 'eyes on the phone, all the time' culture than an endorsement of Windows Phone 7."
Plenty of other commentators insist that what Microsoft is saying is "You idiot! Stop using your smartphone so much and get out there and live!" Or, the latest variant, "You idiot! Stop using your smartphone so much and get out there and use a Windows PC!" The second one is demonstrably false: the big growth rates are in mobile devices, not laptops or desktops, and Microsoft knows that. WP7 is its investment, as a platform vendor, in that kind of future.
The first criticism is also wrong. However ineptly, the ads can be understood as making the case that WP7 puts the "smart" in "smartphone" -- a device that reflects back what you, the user, consider important, and gives you a way to easily access it.
By contrast, Apple's iPhone ads consistently show three things: the iPhone itself, in closeup; a user's hand and fingers holding it, and one or more apps-in-action. The viewer becomes the user: the thumb and fingers you see on the TV screen become, in effect, YOUR thumb and fingers, so you can, literally, see yourself using the iPhone and its apps -- having a Facetime video chat, seeing a video clip of your kid doing something cute, scrolling through music albums, whatever.
That's the difference: Microsoft is trying to set forth an argument (or a cultural critique, to use Gruber's point) and persuade the viewer to agree with it. Apple shows you what you can do.
What's frustrating with the Microsft approach is that the company already has a ready-made marketing approach, modeled on its OS development approach: in crafting the Windows Phone user interface, the Microsoft designers worked closely with endusers. Over and over, they'd develop ideas, create a prototype of them, run it past test groups, and change it based on user feedback.
The result is a genuinely, and impressively, better UI from what's been the norm in smartphones: with the flexibility to be re-organized at will by the user to reflect his or her priorities and preferences, while bringing a fluid, consistent order (with a lot of embedded intelligence) to those priorities and preference.
So it's astounding that Microsoft completely fails to feature the real enduser experience front and center in its ads and marketing.
Instead of the current crop of polished, clever ads featuring actors and, you know, acting, why not just give the phones to a bunch of consumers and record what they do with them, from first activation through discovery and...whatever comes after that?
The "Windows Phone Experience" is what Microsoft created in its massive re-orientation and re-launching of its mobile business. It's wasting the one opportunity to put that Experience before users, and let those users put their experience of that Experience before others.
That would be TV worth watching.