12 , 2001 | The
aggressive marketing tactics for Windows XP and the Xbox demonstrate
that Microsoft wants to control not just your work time, but your
"You can," promises the television and print advertising
campaign for Microsoft's new Windows XP, released October 25th.
The ads show happy people sailing effortlessly through a Windows-blue
sky with fluffy white clouds, beaming at PC users below, while Madonna's
song "Ray of Light" plays in the background. Meanwhile,
the Xbox ads go the route of the teaser, showing nothing but a glowing
green orb on an empty white background, while a voice nags us to
"Go outside! Get some fresh air!" Slowly, an "X"
appears in the middle of the green orb, and the voice admits, "That
gets old fast." Taken in tandem, the ads form an intriguing
pair: one promises freedom by equating good computing with the great
big sky and the outdoors, while the other says, when you're tired
of flying around, come on inside to the Xbox. Wherever you are,
there X is. But disappointing launch sales for the XP seem to indicate
that consumers are replying, "No, we can't" while production
rumors and reports of expected
billion-dollar losses on the console game system cause many
to question the successful debut of the Xbox, scheduled for November
The XP system, which comes in both a Home and a Professional
edition, is built on the NT kernel, and promises great stability.
No review of the product disputes that XP is a faster, cleaner,
better-looking, more reliable system. But no review goes by without
also pointing out the considerable limitations that, in fact, curtail
the freedoms of the consumer. The most notorious of these is the
feature designed to protect the software from piracy, which essentially
means you can't install XP on two different machines on the same
network without getting an activation code, by phone, from Microsoft.
Even when you install XP on one machine, it's possible to change
enough of the components into fooling the OS that it's a brand new
system, and you may have to reactivate. In short, Microsoft wants
to keep a finger in your pie, and not everyone is happy about that
idea. Matt Haughey notes in his weblog
"If I buy the digital bits that compose a program, I expect
that to be the end of the relationship with the company. When I
want an update, I'll contact the company, otherwise our transaction
is over. XP doesn't allow for that, and instead I'm forced to maintain
an ongoing relationship with the company, whether I want to or not."
It seems strange in light of the recent lawsuit against the
company for monopolistic practices that XP also contains some of
the most aggressive bundling ever. The classic example of this was
the heart of the complaint brought against Microsoft by Kodak. They
were annoyed that the system automatically defaulted to Microsoft's
own scanning and digital imaging software, making it harder for
consumers to their own or other's products. While the dispute has
been settled, Kodak was reportedly
less than happy with the outcome. AOL is likewise critical of the
Microsoft instant messaging program that comes with XP. The media
player that comes with XP rips CDs to a proprietary file format
(Windows Media) that, unlike the more flexible MP3 format, cannot
be played on other computers without Windows Media Player installed.
Yet another problem that may account for sluggish sales is the fact
that many computers over two years old cannot handle the technical
demands XP makes on the hardware. Is it any surprise that many Windows
users are cautioning against getting this system right now?
Stability itself, while highly appreciated by Windows 95 and 98
users, isn't sexy enough to sell systems. That's why the marketing
has focused on what could be considered the thematic opposite of
grounded stability: the flights of wild fancy that Windows can take
you on. The rhetoric of freedom puts the emphasis on the consumer:
"You mix. You edit. You can." It's an oddly naïve
ploy, and, as might be expected, prompts cynicism and paradoy.
"So, the new Windows XP TV commercials imply that by using
WindowsXP, I can fly," notes Cameron Barret of camworld.com.
"Yes you can. If I break some bones trying, can I sue Microsoft?"
You have to wonder, how stupid does Microsoft think we are? Their
advertising is completely without self-consciousness, without self-reflection,
and totally without irony - a very slick and sophisticated tone
of manufactured innocence. "Monopoly? What's that?" it seems to
say. This disingenuousness can't help but rub people the wrong way.
The marketing for the Xbox is likewise as subtle as a bag a bricks,
but the hit-you-over-the-head approach is probably more logical
for a game system. In addition to establishing partnerships with
Taco Bell and the soft drink manufacturer SoBe, Microsoft launched
the first phase of its television
campaign this week, a series of short teaser spots. The print
ads and the store displays have been around since the end of last
month. And this past weekend Microsoft sponsored a series of Xbox
launch party events to amp up the hype.
It's not just the advertising content that is blaringly overwhelming;
the scope of the campaign is staggering. Microsoft has committed
$500 million to marketing the console worldwide. That's over twice
the PlayStation 2 budget last year. This isn't just about selling
games and game systems; it's about actively trying to shut others
out of the market. That power play will sound familiar to most of
you. But the fact is, there's not getting away from the Xbox, even
for the casual gamer.
There's no question that the Xbox brand is strong, and distinctly
separate from the Microsoft brand (unlike, say, MSN, which to my
eye has "Microsoft product" written all over it). It was
a wise choice to lift this strategy from PlayStation, because Microsoft
had no foothold in gaming before - if anything, the Microsoft brand
had been something of a liability. I think the effort has been a
success. Take a look at the gorgeously designed Xbox.com
the mysterious green orb like an alien world, the smooth, glassy
navigation bars, that green which we now identify as "xbox
green" - there's not a whiff of Microsoft
to taint the experience.
As with XP, the bones of the system itself look great. With
a fast Intel chip, an nVIDIA custom-designed graphics processor,
and a built-in 10GB hard disk, this console is a powerful mini-computer.
That itself is enough to sell the product and make gamers drool.
But some console gamers, particularly those who rushed in to buy
the PS2 last year, are somewhat jaded about specs. Specs, after
all, do not equal great gameplay in and of themselves. Eamon Daly,
Director of Web Development and gamer, won't be getting an Xbox
this fall: "I own a PS2, and now that the "next-gen" games
are really coming into their own on the platform (ICO, Madden, Grand
Theft Auto 3), I don't expect development on the Xbox to ramp up
to an equal level for at least six months to a year. I mean really,
there are so many great games that I don't own, I don't see any
reason to switch to the latest and greatest. I'm more interested
in the gameplay than the fancy graphics." Max Withers, windows
user and sometime gamer, puts it more bluntly: "I've pretty
much given up on games. Same thing for the Xbox. If I've learned
one thing from my PS2, it's that I'm too old and/or stupid to play
any of these fancy new games."
These thoughtful, if cynical, consumers are not the targets
of the first wave of Xbox marketing. Robbie Bach, Senior Vice President
of Games, explained the strategy
atthe Microsoft New York Sales Office this May
"To give you some idea on the target audience, and I apologize
for the radiant green, if you look at the starting at launch, mostly
the target audience is what you'd call the hard core, a little over
six million of them in the U.S.; age bracket 16 to 26, mostly male.
You see the types of games they play: sports, action, racing, fighting.
You can bet that our portfolio of 15 to 20 games is going to be
mostly concentrated in sports, action, racing and fighting at launch."
It does not bode well for the future of Xbox that Bach had to apologize
to the board for the "radiant green". We could, of course,
read that apology as a sort of false modesty, a way to point out
how damn powerful a color it is. But contrast the Jolly-Rancher-Apple-Green
flavor with the sleek elegance of the PS2. When the PS2 came out,
it revolutionized console gaming, because it made it cool for everyone
to have one, adult men and women as well as adolescent boys. The
marketing of the PS2 - gender-neutral and image-centered - was instrumental
in opening up the over-26 demographic to console games. Microsoft,
like Nintendo, seeks to ride in the wake of PS2's market penetration.
By saddling themselves with a candy-colored product, is Microsoft
limiting the capability of the Xbox to appeal to a larger audience?
Will they be able to shift their marketing successfully if their
brand has already come on so strong?
The problems facing Microsoft with regard to both the Xbox and
XP, taken in tandem, position the company unusually in the respective
markets for the products. The XP release has had to overcome a well-publicized
legal battle over the ugly and un-American word "monopoly".
The strategy was to ignore it, and it may have backfired. Honesty
and forthrightness could have changed even Microsoft-haters' tunes
to one of grudging respect. But, with very little else to challenge
XP in the market, except for other Microsoft products like Windows
ME and 2000, XP should respectably, even though initial sales are
short of the expectations. The Xbox, on the other hand, is entering
a market that recently destroyed the much-beloved Dreamcast. Although
the core consumer base is perhaps not as jaded as those who would
be the target for the XP, nevertheless it is a highly sophisticated,
mercurial group who probably know more about games and gaming than
many Microsoft senior officials. The Xbox is going to have to hit
the ground running to catch up, and it's not going to be able to
rely on locking out the competition to sell more units. The brand
separation has, so far, meant a separation of modus operandi
as well. But wait and see - will we have to register with MSN Passport
in the future to play online games on the Xbox? Will we see a merging
of the home and the office as Microsoft extends its reach into every
corner of our lives? The future of the X is, eponymously, something
of a cipher.
Pinckard is a slacker and a gamer (as most slackers are).
She is saving up her money for the Gamecube. In her spare time
she can be found pounding out content for www.umamistunami.com.
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