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November 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 playtime, too.

"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 and availability 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 15th.

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.

bio:
Jane 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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