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On The Flip Side
by Michael Munger




Microsoft, A People's Company?
October 17th, 2000

According to Dictionary.com, one of the definitions of "people" is this:

The mass of ordinary persons; the populace. Used with the: those who fear and distrust the people, and wish to draw all powers from them into the hands of the higher classes (Thomas Jefferson).

I chose this one on purpose since claiming to be a popular choice - not in popularity but to mean that you are the people's choice - is something that almost everybody tries.

We see all these companies claiming that they are people's companies. More often than that, you will witness political parties state that their base is popular; that their ideas come from the common folks and their movement started from below, not from the elites above.

So many political movements make this claim. Everybody wants to come from the people, for the people with ideas inspired by the people.

Everybody wants to say this since it is politically correct to come from the masses instead of the higher privileged classes. This is how some of the best (and worst) historical figures made their impact on our world. They came out of nowhere and made sure that everybody would know it when they were on the rise.

It was one of their many advantages over the old aristocratic families and characters. People adore leaders they can directly identify with, as if they were still at their side, not just on top of the food chain.

A few centuries after the political and historical revolutions that brought the world its share of popular leaders, we have our very own modern versions of people's entities.

In the computer world, some will pretend - not without good arguments in their favor - that Apple is a people's company. After all, you see a CEO in jeans and hear that the dress code is different than in work places that are more conventional. Of course, we all know that the Mac OS user interface is friendlier for those without extensive computer knowledge.

That is debatable for some reasons, but it is not what I intend to discuss here.

As funny as it may sound, I just feel like throwing this question around. Is Microsoft becoming a people's company? At least on the Mac side? Is the Macintosh Business Unit people-oriented instead of just focusing on enterprise markets?

If you read ZDNet's piece on the way Microsoft intends to market Office 2001, the issue becomes interesting and will arouse suspicions as well as curiosity.

Microsoft? A people-oriented company? Many of us will say, "puh-lease".

In the ZDNet piece, the author (Nick DePlume) says this:

According to Irving Kwong, product manager for the Macintosh Business Unit, Microsoft plans to emulate the consumer thrust of Apple Computer Inc.'s recent marketing efforts. Kwong said Microsoft will aim the new version of the productivity suite more toward consumers than business users. In addition, the company will downplay the package's corporate image, the better to focus on Office 2001's Mac connections.

Kwong said that Microsoft noticed a shift toward the consumer market between the release of Office 4, which was licensed primarily to corporations, and Office 98, which found a sharp rise of customers in the consumer sector.

Kwong attributed this shift in demographics to the success of Apple's iMac and iBook computers: "Our business is highly reflective on where Apple is selling its products,"

One thing is sure, people are buying the Mac, and many wish that it were more popular in big and small businesses. Indeed. We can say that Apple's market is a people's market because after all, its core fields are publishing, consumers and education.

If MS wants to hit the target with Office 2001, it logically has to aim at Apple's markets, namely the people instead of business heads.

The big question is: does anybody buy the new claim that Office is a people's product? Is the claim more than a marketing trick? With the efficiency of Microsoft's marketing machine, I do not doubt that the claim will convince many Mac heads. Beyond that, is Microsoft's Mac Business Unit a people's company? Knowing how risky it is to adventure an opinion, I will say that this is plausible.

All those who followed the upgrade path of Outlook Express, Internet Explorer and Office for the last 3 years noticed the important twist in Microsoft's strategy. Its software is user-friendlier, more Mac-like. That certainly touches the user's buttons since common Mac folks know how to appreciate software with that extra attention to the customer's needs.

Beyond the software offering, Microsoft improved its way to handle customers. I did not consult its technical support to say that, but I hang around official and non-official forums related to Microsoft software. Members of the Outlook Express Talk mailing list benefit from the presence of folks from the Outlook Express and Entourage team, such as Jud Spencer and Dan Crevier.

You can witness the same thing on another public forum that I know of, the Internet Explorer newsgroup on Microsoft's newsgroup server (microsoft.public.inetexplorer.mac). You will find Jimmy Grewal, part of the Internet Explorer team.

These folks hang around to answer questions directly and participate in the discussions as much as they can. Whether they do it because of personal conviction or because Microsoft makes this a part of their job description, it helps the company to reach out for its users and talk to them directly.

If there is a thing that people appreciate, it is having direct access to people inside the company, not just technical support or press relations. It leaves a good impression and allows users to gain knowledge from a source with a high level of expertise.

All populist movements and leaders have to conform to this in order to be populist. The facts that MS intends to market Office with users in mind and that some of its employees spend time in public forums may not reverse the whole corporate attitude of the company. However, it makes its Mac Business Unit closer to its market.

Quite a few of us will appreciate it. Some may wonder if, in Office's case, this is the right thing. Our friend John H. Farr says that we may have an Office Lite on our hands.

To play the devil's advocate, I would say that Microsoft intends to show - to make money, of course - ordinary consumers that Office is a business suite that they can actually use. All of that, while the features and power would still be present for businesses that depend on Office anyway.

I could be wrong, especially if somebody finds out that MS stripped Office of important features lately :-)

In any case, it is interesting to grasp that there are a few populist elements inside Microsoft. The software giant remains an impersonal corporation, but I have the feeling that we, Mac users, get special treatment in exchange of our money.

Am I nuts?

Your comments are welcomed.

Michael Munger is a French Canadian living in Montreal. He discovered the Mac in 1994 while studying journalism, the profession he loves and practices. He also studied history and communications. In addition to his work at The Mac Observer, he authors the iBasics tutorial column at Low End Mac, and cofounded MacSoldiers in 1998.

You can find more about him at his personal Web site.

You are welcome to send me your comments or you can post them below.

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