Media Mash Microsoft "Mojave"

Last Updated Aug 4, 2008 1:48 PM EDT

Microsoft's Mojave ExperimentSometimes you have to get used to being unpopular, like when you have a poorly conceived or executed product. In such cases, you dust yourself off and get back to work. But when you're Microsoft, and the product is the latest version of Windows, otherwise known as a major cash cow, the temptation may be to wage a public relations campaign. Giving in to that temptation can be the biggest mistake you can make, particularly if you think push-down media still rules.

Anyone in the tech industry has heard about the "Mojave" experiment by now -- taking XP users who weren't familiar with Vista, demonstrating the operating system for them, and then revealing that what dazzled them so completely was really the maligned Vista.

Based on the video snippets Microsoft chose for the site, Mojave seems to succeeded -- temporarily, at least -- in improving the previously negative perceptions of Vista among at least some of the consumers duped into taking a gander at the operating system. But users aware enough of [sic] to view the experiment videos make up a generally tech-savvy crowd -- and both end users and professional commentators are raising questions online around the Mojave Experiment and the attitudes from Microsoft it seems to represent.
The questions include how having someone demonstrate an operating system, or anything else, can be the same as using it yourself, or whether taking an average machine and having experts work through it to get as fast a response as possible, already installing and testing anything that might be needed (and, presumably, nothing that wasn't) simply avoided the problems people have had.

There are certainly plenty of technically educated people who like Vista, or at least who say that it's not all that bad. But Microsoft's blatant PR campaign has got some scrutinizing everything:

A major block was the lack of third-party hardware or software support. What good is a PC operating system if there's no applications or peripherals to work with it?Tellingly, Mojave seeks to address this. The web site notes there now exists 5,500 compatible devices and 3,500 software programs for Vista. But that's half as many devices as the company bragged about a year ago. Six months after Microsoft's January 2007 "consumer launch," it said 10,000 devices and 1,900 applications. No, we're not sure about the 10,000 number either, but it's possible Microsoft changed the metrics along the way.
In all of its PR savvy, Microsoft has forgotten that the day of old media, where enough dollars could blanket three television networks and key magazines, is over. Users can talk back with the Internet amplifying their voices. Before undertaking a campaign that could be interpreted as massive slight of hand, better be sure that every "i" is dotted and each "t" crossed. Addressing the public directly in a flawed way invites a wave of backlash that will drown you out, no matter how big a name you have.

Joe Wilcox at eWeek's Microsoft Watch initially thought that Mojave had mojo, but then did a complete U-turn for reasons that show why the campaign was flawed even from an old media model:

  1. Microsoft treats its customers like they're stupid.
  2. Microsoft embarrasses Mojave participants.
  3. The marketing campaign blames customers for Vista's problems.
  4. Microsoft denies there is a real problem.
  5. Mojave seethes with arrogance.
These are great observations, and the most important one, I think, is the third. In defensive marketing, blame may be tempting, but it's usually a good way to look sour and as though you're trying to cover something up. Blaming the customer is just stupid beyond belief.

Now Microsoft and its surrogates are left not only trying to spin Vista, but to spin its spin in Mojave and dig the hole even deeper:

All these complaints are based on misunderstandings of the Mojave Experiment's purpose, said Ben Carlson, the chief strategy officer for Bradley and Montgomery, the branding firm that conducted the experiment. "It's not about saying Vista is perfect, or that all these people fell in love with it," he said. It was meant to show that "what people have heard about Vista is different from the reality."

The 10-minute demonstration was "a fair representation of the operating system," he said, though he did agree that "an operating system is something you live with." He also said the videos were not the end of the story. "A lot of what people have complained about will be addressed as it evolves," he said. "The experiment will continue."

This is Orwellian newspeak, where controlled representation is supposed to redefine the word reality. But unlike Big Brother in 1984, Microsoft doesn't control what can be said, even if the company can apparently carefully pick and choose a select minority of all the participants to put on the Mojave web site. All it's done is stir the pot even more. When something is wrong with a product, the quickest and surest cure remains fixing, not spinning, it.
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    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.