Microsoft XP coyness out of character

At the time of writing Computerworld was still in the dark about Microsoft's local launch plans for Windows XP. Not that I'm complaining. After all, I've often enough been critical of the marketing excesses that this industry is prone to.

At the time of writing Computerworld was still in the dark about Microsoft’s local launch plans for Windows XP. Not that I’m complaining. After all, I’ve often enough been critical of the marketing excesses that this industry is prone to.

Nevertheless, if our presence is going to be required to wet the head of Microsoft’s new baby, we usually like to have more than a couple of days’ notice. But at this stage (October 24, the day before XP is due to go on sale) the only event we’ve heard of to launch XP is sessions at the Logan Concrete Centre in Auckland and a (hopefully more congenial) venue in Wellington, where the new operating system’s features will be demonstated. Boring. London and New York, apparently, can look forward to spectacular launch events. But I repeat: I am not complaining; merely remarking.

Such coyness is often associated with Microsoft’s former arch rival, Apple. In fact, in the days before Windows XP’s launch, Apple was the subject of speculation that it was about to release some product of its own to spoil the XP party. By the time you read this, it may well have done its thing. But with my early deadline, all I have to go on is the rumour mill, which is suggesting Apple is launching some kind of audio device. With such fevered speculation as this – “Analysts expected to praise Apple’s vertical integration” and “Even if imitators pop up eventually, Apple’s system will truly be the only one that ‘just works’” – who needs a marketing department?

Microsoft’s style is typically the opposite of Apple. Far from attempting to keep the lid on future products (Apple apparently once sued a loose-lipped employee), Microsoft will talk about them years in advance of their release as though the shops were already stocked. The build-up to the launch in the US next month of its Xbox game console exemplifies the Microsoft method.

None other than Microsoft boss Bill Gates set the Xbox ball rolling more than 18 months ago when he unveiled what the device would be made of. The occasion, a game developer conference in California, was reported as though it was an actual product launch. The device was duly described in all its detail, down to the “fact” that it would be twice as fast as Sony’s PlayStation 2.

Even before that event a domain name was registered, and today there’s a website that gives all the appearance of catering to a community of dedicated Xbox owners. There they can find details of the availability of accessories and software for the Xbox (which, of course, no one can actually buy yet). It’s all very confusing for the inattentive, who might be fooled into thinking that this is a real, shipping product.

Why am I aiding and abetting the process, when the product concerned isn’t of the slightest interest to business computer users? My excuse is that the Xbox is clearly important to Microsoft, and what’s important to Microsoft will undoubtedly matter to you before long.

We know it matters to Microsoft because it’s one of five product categories the company lists as offering growth potential in the next five years. The others include the desktop, which in 2002 (the first quarter of which has just ended) will continue to represent the bulk of its sales; servers (which grew at a “stellar” 20% rate in Q1); and web services. To quote from its 2001 annual report, “MSN, Xbox and other emerging businesses continue to expand our foundation for the future”.

What’s difficult to reconcile is how the company can simultaneously be intent on being a serious enterprise software provider, while also tackling the consumer electronics business. The answer is that it’s not attempting to crack the hardware market. It’s not, for example, building the Xbox itself, farming that task out to a specialist gadget maker. And nor does it expect to make a profit from the Xbox (for several years, at least), which it is planning to sell in the US for under $US300. What it does have its sights on is a new platform for its software, in the same way that XP and .Net are new software platforms. Which it must do if it’s to continue to deliver the kind of growth and profit results that its investors are used to.

Where does that leave you? Probably wishing that Microsoft did less dashing off in directions irrelevant to serious computing and paid more attention to fixing fundamentals like the security of its enterprise software.

Footnote: Just as this editorial made its way to Computerworld’s sub-editors, Apple announced the iPod, an audio device that can store 1000 tunes, launched by Apple head Steve Jobs using language eerily like that above.

Microsoft, meanwhile, revealed it would give away 500 copies of Windows XP to anyone who could bring themselves to say the words “With Windows XP - yes, you can”. Having already been given a copy, I'm not sure that I could say that and mean it: the XP Professional version I've received is for "PCs without Windows or PCs with Windows 95 or earlier versions". What about the rest of us?

Doesburg is Computerworld’s editor. Send email to Anthony Doesburg. Send letters for publication to Computerworld Letters.

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