Photo Courtesy of New Yorker
Little known fact: I once worked at Microsoft. For six whole months.
The recent attention being garnered by Steve Ballmer stepping down as Microsoft CEO (http://nyti.ms/15csQMG) made me think of my own time at Microsoft. Microsoft Windows had been a client of mine, and they offered me a position when the company decided to switch agencies. I think my experience there may be a microcosm of just some of the challenges the company has faced over the last decade.
I was initially hired to manage the consumer launch of Windows 2000. You remember the consumer Windows 2000, right? Oh no, wait – the week before I started (two weeks after I was hired), Microsoft changed direction and decided not to launch Windows 2000 for consumers. Apparently, it was too much of a leap for “regular people” to handle, and still facing a number of adoption challenges by the business community. So, the week before I started, I was informed that while there was still a job for me, my role was going to change.
Instead of a multi-million dollar launch of Windows 2000, I “managed” the launch of a product known as Windows Millennium Edition (or Windows ME), basically Windows 98 in a new box.
There was no marketing budget, and therefore not a lot for me to manage. However, Microsoft was doing a good amount of co-op marketing with a number of manufacturers. The co-op marketing was mostly with product manufactures – HP, Dell, Canon, etc. Therefore, it focused primarily on how Windows ME was specifically designed to integrate seamlessly with your digital devices (we called this new idea “plug and play”) – which at that time meant your digital camera, your printer, and maybe (if you were lucky) your MP3 player. Which held 12 songs at a time.
Working on this campaign directly led to my resignation from Microsoft. While thinking about how these products fit together, I shared a vision with my manager that Microsoft could position Windows ME as “The Center of Your Digital Life.” Windows would be the software that didn’t just allow your PC a static connection to all of your devices, but created an entirely new lifestyle based on what those connections brought together. Share photos easily, keep in touch with your friends, take your music anywhere, print from any location, etc. Keep in mind, this was prior to the iMac, the iPod, Facebook, Flickr or any of the myriad of sharing options we have today.
I thought it was genius. My supervisor didn’t get it. At all. “What’s that even mean – your digital world? No one will understand that.” Well, we’re Microsoft, I pointed out. We have a LOT of money to spend on marketing. We can explain it to them. And own it.
Needless to say, my idea was rejected, and I spent the next two months hanging Windows Media banners at events, buying billboards with Windows Media logos that faced Real Network’s offices (“We’re coming!” was the strategy – as if they didn’t know), and in general, losing interest. In fact, I believed that Microsoft was so focused on the past, that when I resigned and they offered me the chance to manage the launch of their new “super-secret gaming platform” I declined, thinking it would never come to pass. (My mistake – XBOX turned out to be a bit of a hit. Oh well.)
So, after six months of a miserable commute and frustrating marketing experience, I resigned to go back into the agency world. It’s still my only foray into corporate marketing. I learned that I thrive on the creativity and opportunity for fresh thinking that is part of the nature of the agency business, not the product details, launch cycles and engineering that often dictates much of what happens on the corporate side.
My experience at Microsoft is more than 12 years in the past, but it mirrors many of the reasons why Ballmer’s term may not have been as successful as it could have been. Reliance on past market position, an unwillingness to turn the ship, a lack of vision to see the future. Scary to think what the world would be like today had Apple decided to license it’s operating system in the 1980s instead of remaining proprietary, or what a visionary like Steve Jobs might have meant for Microsoft.