Samsung, Stop Your Photocopiers. (And Apple, Stop Your Lawyers)

“They sat with the iPhone and went feature by feature, copying it to the smallest detail. In those critical three months, Samsung was able to copy and incorporate the core part of Apple’s four-year investment without taking any of the risks, because they were copying the world’s most successful product.”

Thus spake Apple attorney Harold McElhinny to the jury during closing arguments of his company’s lawsuit against Samsung. I don’t think there is any disputing that McElhinny is right. In fact, what reads on the page as lawyer’s hyperbole is really a simple statement of fact: Samsung really did crawl through the iPhone feature by feature, stacking it against its original Galaxy S and concluding that in any instance in which the two devices differed, the latter should adopt the look and functionality of the former. There’s something almost admirable in the very brazenness of it.

What is not so admirable is the spectacle of the world’s most valuable company — not technology company or electronics company, mind, but most valuable, full stop — trying to stamp out one of its imitators not through the competitive marketplace but through the court system. To be blunt, Samsung indisputably copied Apple’s designs, but I don’t see anything in the law that ought to prevent them from doing it.

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Mac OS X: The Lion in Winter

First of all, mea culpa: I was completely wrong about Apple’s pricing strategy for Mac OS X 10.7. That doesn’t bother me — it doesn’t even surprise me that much. I don’t believe Steve Jobs and company are incapable of error, but I do believe they know much more about running their business than I ever will.

But the fact that OS X 10.7 is being released to the public for the measly price of $29.99 (side note: what’s with the double-decimal pricing?) is a huge deal, and not merely because it will likely be the most successful — that is, the most immediately widespread — OS release Apple has ever had. It symbolically closes an era that began 16 years ago with Windows 95: the era of the retail software event. Back then, the country went crazy for Windows 95 in a way that hasn’t been seen since, well, the iPhone came out. People lined up for it, bought it in droves, gossiped and kibitzed and complained about it. A lot of people liked it, a lot didn’t (at least at first), but everybody had an opinion. Windows 95 was more than the tech story of the year: it was the heart of the tech universe, a symbol of how much more than mere technology computer software was becoming. And it was Microsoft’s baby.

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Party like it’s 1995: the launch of Windows 7

Most of you reading this are probably old enough to remember the launch of Windows 95, even if that event, which took place a scant 14 years ago, seems to belong to another era. It is probably the most widely mainstream manifestation of techno-lust ever witnessed. Stories were legion of people queueing for midnight sales outside of CompUSAs, or wherever the hell people bought their software back then, or having Windows 95 barbecues and just generally getting all giddy about having a Windows that was actually usable. Probably a lot of the stories were made up, but it didn’t seem to matter; for the most part, they felt true. Hordes of people — hundreds of thousands, maybe millions — felt they were getting something new that was going to tangibly make their lives better. That doesn’t happen too often.

Anyway, whether you remember this or not, Microsoft certainly does. Every succeeding version of Windows has launched with an enormous fanfare, an attempt to demonstrate by sheer willpower that Windows is still very much a Big Deal. It’s kind of absurd when you think about it: retail sales of Windows represent only a trickle of the software’s vast currents of revenue. Most Windows installations are licensed to businesses or to computer manufacturers, and most consumers encounter a new Windows version either at work or when they bring home a new machine. It seems silly to expend so much time and money and hope — for these extravaganzas reek of a desire to impress, to delight, to awe — in order to market something that most people are simply going to buy, or otherwise acquire, anyway.

I tend to shy away from comparing Microsoft to the Borg or whatever other evil totalitarian entity strikes your fancy. But it’s hard not to look at a Windows product launch as one would look at, say, the annual pageant given on the birthday of some dictator in a banana republic. It is not enough for Microsoft to dominate, to be the single greatest presence in most people’s computing lives. They want you to love them, too. In Microsoft’s case, the desire is exacerbated by the fact that, for a time, people really did love them — back in 1995, when everyone lined up to buy what is still remembered as the most important consumer software upgrade ever.

Images of khaki-clad guys firing up the Weber must still be playing in Microsoft’s collective head, lo these many years later. How else to explain the company’s strategy for launching Windows 7? Its idea is to encourage people to host software parties, like Tupperware parties except that, presumably, the attendees will include men. Take a look at this, if you can get through it:

I frankly couldn’t. Blandness on that scale is almost beyond parody. I can’t watch that without thinking about those poor actors, hard-working folks no doubt, grateful for a shot at any high-profile gig, reading the script the night before, wondering how in god’s name to inject any kind of humanity or genuine feeling into something so anodyne. Their hearts must have sank anew on arriving at the set and seeing what appears to be a wall-mounted oven straight out of the Brady house. The only thing missing from the scene is Beaver, trotting in to grab a cookie and talk about how he can’t wait to install Windows 7 so he can use it to sync his Zune. It’s a shame Buñuel isn’t alive to see this.

Microsoft’s advertising has always been unusually revealing of the company’s culture, that peculiar brand of left-brainedness that is determined to be hip if only it could find the right algorithm for it. (People thought Jobs was being a snob when he said Microsoft had “absolutely no taste.” As usual, he was more right than most people realized.) There is something autumnal about this piece: it represents Microsoft wistfully and unashamedly reaching back into the past, trying to conjure up some lingering shred of that sunny autumn when the sun never set on Windows 95. Maybe they should look into licensing “Time Is On My Side.”

Jerry and Bill, we barely knew ye

You try to give a beleaguered company some love, and look what happens.

Microsoft is canning its Jerry Seinfeld campaign after airing only two spots. In its place, we are told, is a direct riff on Apple’s “Get a Mac” campaign, in which the “PC” character is recast in a positive light.

Wow. Where to start?

First of all, Microsoft’s protestations to the contrary, there is no way this is part of some preconceived strategy. You don’t invest the kind of money Microsoft did, or hire a spokesperson of Seinfeld’s calibre, to run only two lengthy, opaque spots that never built to any resolution. The only explanation is that Microsoft flinched. The ads got some good notices, but they were far from home runs, and Microsoft’s management must have realized — or believed — that what they had in the can wasn’t going to make things any better.

What’s perhaps most amazing is Microsoft’s counter-assertion, that the whole truncated campaign was a carefully worked out, perfectly executed effort to get people talking and generate buzz, a strategy which has achieved its aim and so may now be ended. If that were really the case — and I don’t believe even Microsoft’s marketers are that stupid — then their shareholders should demand immediate resignations of the company’s chief marketing personnel. To piss away tens of millions of dollars on an idea that turned out to be a dud is, perhaps, an honest mistake; to blow it on a campaign that was designed to be no more than a damp fart from the get-go is criminal. If my shareholder value was being wasted in so cavalier a fashion, I’d want an explanation, and I’d want a few heads on spikes along with it. No one at Microsoft even seems to get this — that the explanation they’re offering actually makes them look worse.

However bad the rest of the spots were — and, assuming they were as good as the ones that did run, they must have at least been watchable — Microsoft should have ran them. The whole campaign had a whiff of desparation about it anyway, but knifing it in the cradle shows the company to be genuinely adrift, feverishly moving from message to message in the hope that something, sooner or later, will stick. At worst, people would complain that the ads were stupid; now, they get to point out that Microsoft actually agrees they were stupid.

That news was quickly followed by the report that the next batch of Microsoft ads would appropriate Apple’s “I’m a PC” meme to rehabilitate the Windows PC. I was willing to give the Seinfeld ads the benefit of the doubt, but I have no hesitation in predicting that these new spots will fail utterly. I’ve said this before, so I’ll confine myself to the short version: you cannot tell people that Windows PCs are great, because people already know they’re not. A lot of people spend the majority of their day in front of one; a lot more have at least one catastrophic story about how Windows or Office made their life hell. Going on TV and pleading, ex-boyfriend-like, for people to remember all the good times they had together isn’t going to get Microsoft anywhere. To confine myself to the even-shorter version: it’s the products, stupid. Microsoft cannot revive its brand by touting products that suck, no matter how clever the spots are.

One day, the Apple/Microsoft Ad War will end up as a case exercise in marketing and advertising texts as an instance of perfect binary opposites: a company that executed almost flawlessly against a preeminent rival too slow and witless to respond. Can’t wait to see what happens next.

Addendum: the new spot has begun airing. A couple of flashes of humor/cleverness, but otherwise, mostly empty air. Reminds me of that staple gimmick they use in commercials for prescription drugs or financial service companies, where a succession of actors recites the same inane catchphrase (“I’m Claritin-clear!” “I’m Claritin-clear!” “I’m Claritin-clear!”). Before it’s halfway done, you’re just waiting for it to be over.

Thanks to Daring Fireball for the original links.

Big Top Points: the “Gatesfeld” Ad

So the first Microsoft ad featuring Bill Gates and Jerry Seinfeld has run.

The reaction, at least among the Mac web, has been predictable. “Terrible.” “No point at all.” “God awful.”

The ad could certainly have been better. But first, let’s talk about what it does right.

1. Jerry Seinfeld

Many people are claiming Seinfeld is too washed up and out of touch to be the centerpiece of a high-profile ad campaign.Twenty years ago, perhaps they would have a point. But Seinfeld has barely faded from the cultural scene in the ten years since it went off the air. Commercials mine it for material, DVDs still swell the shelves at Best Buy, and it plays in syndication in probably every market in America. The latter point is the most crucial. With hundreds of channels at our disposal, TV shows simply don’t disappear the way they used to, and Seinfeld’s ubiquity demonstrates that it is still quite relevant to the culture at large. It’s no stretch to imagine that it continues to draw new viewers today. Point is, Jerry is still a big deal, and his presence gives the ads an automatic “look-at-this” factor. And if you like what Jerry does — which a lot of people still seem to do — you’re probably going to enjoy the spots.

What’s that you say? Jerry’s apartment on Seinfeld had a Mac? Guess what: nobody gives a shit. If Jerry started shilling for Spider-Man over Superman, then yes, I’d have to call his integrity into question. But the Macs on Jerry’s show were props; he never used them or spoke about them, and no one but computer nerds care.

2. Bill Gates

A while ago, I scoffed at the idea of using Bill Gates in a marketing campaign, despite the fact that he is the most well-known person in the computer industry. My reason was that Gates is a notably poor public speaker, and that next to John Hodgman’s lovable PC character, Gates is a stiff whose awkwardness inspires a mix of pity and mild revulsion, at least in me. The ad gets around this problem in a very simple way: it limits Gates’ utterances to short (like, three or four words short) declarative statements, leaving the heavy lifting to Seinfeld. (Ironic, when one remembers the criticism Jerry took for his poor acting on the show.) Gates comes off looking like a good sport, and able to at least sort of hold his own with one of America’s premiere comic talents. Not bad.

3. A few good laughs

The spot wasn’t a screamer — it wasn’t supposed to be — but some of the funny moments worked, and they tended to favor Gates. His “Platinum Shoe Circus Clown Club” card, with its dweeby teenage photo, is the ad’s funniest moment. I also liked his throwaway line about “Big Top Points,” and the fact that he and Jerry are munching churros on the way out of the mall, a subtle return to their first exchange.

4. A taste of things to come

THE FUTURE, a card reads at the spot’s conclusion. This is the first volley of a long campaign, and if nothing else, the spot leaves you wondering what they’re going to do next.

Now for the bad parts.

1. Seinfeld

To my view, much of the humor of the ad falls flat, and it seems to be mostly the material intended to be “Seinfeldesque.” The whole routine of Jerry breaking in the shoes, fitting Gates etc. feels forced, and Gates’ nonplussed expression doesn’t help to sell the bit. The smash cut of Jerry showering in the shoes was a blatant steal (“homage,” if you prefer) of Kramer washing his dishes and tossing salad while showering. The business with the onlooking crowd was annoying; yeah yeah, they’re talking about the “Conquistador” instead of Bill Gates and Jerry Seinfeld. Predictable, and not funny. Perhaps worst of all, the capper to all this — the point when Jerry actually asks Bill about Microsoft, the point to which the whole ad was presumably building up — completely whiffs it. Cake-like edible computers aren’t desirable, funny or even very interesting; they’re just strange, and following the notion with a shot of Gates shimmying his doughy ass is the lug nut atop the sundae. As I said, I don’t think the spot aspired to be a laugh riot, but for a 90-second ad, too much of the funny missed the mark, including the one part that really needed to work.

2. Payoff

The ad clearly is intended to be the cornerstone of a long campaign, but that doesn’t relieve it of the responsibility of delivering some kind of takeaway in the here and now. The ad risks coming off as twee, self-satisfied, indulgent, because the whimsy isn’t serving any apparent purpose. Microsoft is a brand many people associate with frustration, with their time being needlessly taken up by nuisances and distractions, and I can see many people looking at the ad as more of the same. (As, indeed, many already have.)

3. Microsoft

This is more of a conceptual critique, and one I’ve raised before. One can’t watch this ad, or contemplate the many yet to come, without wondering what Microsoft is hoping to achieve with all this effort and money. Microsoft’s fundamental problem is its products, not its image; the latter merely is a symptom of the former. The driver headaches, slowness and incompatibility issues faced by untold Vista users are real; the failure of Plays For Sure and the struggle of the Zune to gain traction are real; the millions of burned-out X-Box 360s are real. Microsoft today comes across as simply too big to effectively compete, whether the goal is a satisfactory PC user experience, a viable online search strategy or a reliable game console. Any chuckle that the Gatesfeld ads manage to wring might be immediately soured by a dead X-Box, a Windows XP feature inscrutably and inexplicably relocated in Vista, or a Zune user wondering why he can’t buy music with actual money like the rest of the free world. The funny-weird ads might well make people feel a little better about Microsoft, but imagine how much better people might feel if the spots demonstrated a commitment to better products. Perhaps they will, but if so, they aren’t off to a very good start.

All negativity aside, the ad was at least a partial success, engaging viewers’ interest and effectively paving the way for more to come. Even if what follows doesn’t gain the ubiquity or effectiveness of “Get a Mac,” it could lead to at least a little goodwill headed Microsoft’s way, and at this point, I’m sure the company will take all it can get, even if it doesn’t come cheap.

Ask my computer to shut up.

Bill Gates is, yet again, claiming that speech-driven user interfaces are about to become the Next Big Thing in computing.

Sure, he’s been saying that for a long time now. Ten years at least. I think Bill is taking the broken clock approach on this: say something often enough, long enough, and the laws of probability declare that you will eventually be right. You may laugh at me for predicting snow tomorrow … but give it six months. Then who’s the wise guy, huh?

Enough already. The gulf between Gates’ financial/business success and the acuity of his technological vision is stunning; there is probably no comparable figure in any industry who has been so wrong in the field of his supposed expertise. His obsession with voice-driven UIs – which probably stems from nothing more than too many Star Trek reruns back in the dorm at Harvard — is just one example of his propensity for mistaking his own geeky fetishes for technological inevitabilities.

No one wants voice computing, except for David Pogue, and he’s a Mac user. The din of an entire office running speech-driven computers boggles the mind. Not to mention that voice interaction is much slower than customary manual interaction. This technology has been around for years now, and if people wanted it, it would have taken off already. You know two-way video phones have existed since the early eighties? Probably you did. No one wants those either.

At this point I am tempted to draw a parallel between Gates’ obsession with vocal interfaces and the unhinged swearing that many a Windows user has directed against his or her recalcitrant machine. But I’m taking the high road.

In the meantime, will some tech journalist kindly grow a pair (pardon the metaphor, female readers) and ask Gates to either let the subject die or offer a plainspoken explanation as to why this decade-old prediction stubbornly refuses to come true?