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The difference between Microsoft and Apple? It starts with communication

The difference between Microsoft and Apple? It starts with communication

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Microsoft BUILD audience
Microsoft BUILD audience

I was going through my Twitter feed during Microsoft’s BUILD keynote yesterday and couldn’t help but assess it as a desperate quagmire of minimally worthwhile information. It wasn’t for lack of trying, everyone was tweeting furiously about the event and the announcements made therein. It wasn’t for lack of interest, either, as I personally consider Windows 8 to be the closest thing we have to a viable long-term competitor to Apple’s iPad and iOS. So why was I hearing so much noise and so little signal on Twitter? Mostly because the world’s second favorite social network acts as a mirror unto reality. Machine-like in its operation, it tends to spit out good tweets only if you provide it with quality news. What Microsoft did yesterday clearly failed this litmus test.

The reason for this failure to communicate effectively is a lack of focus.

Steve Jobs’ keynotes for Apple, which may now be consigned to the past, stand as the gold standard in delivering news about a company’s next generation of consumer tech products. What resonates from each of the last few major announcements Jobs and his team have made is the stupendous simplicity of Apple’s message. The original MacBook Air fit into a manila envelope, the iPad was "magical and revolutionary," the third-gen iPod touch was "a great gaming device," and the fourth-gen iPhone "changed everything." Pithy. Memorable. Emotive.

Never mind how credible you may consider each of those claims to be, the fact is that you’re aware of them today, even if you’re not obsessively tracking Apple’s fortunes. That, dear friends, is having focus. If you can spend an hour introducing a new product or upgrade or device category and end up with almost your entire audience on the same page, rehearsing the same talking points, you’ve done your job. Apple’s leadership recognizes just how brief an attention span the general public has for tech product launches and tries to capture attention with just one headline-grabbing, market-leading advantage. Microsoft, well… doesn’t.

You may argue that BUILD is a developer event first and foremost, but let’s not kid ourselves — its keynote address provided the platform for the first true showcase of Windows 8 and attention from outside the developer community will have been as intense, if not more, as within it. Moreover, must we assume that developers are inhuman automatons composed mostly of patience cells and a penchant for tracking meandering, excessively detailed feature lists? They’re human, just like us, and they’ll have been looking for Windows 8 to appeal to the average user first, so that they may have a reason to code their apps for Microsoft’s software first and iOS, Android and the like second.

Apple’s equivalent event to BUILD is the Worldwide Developer Conference held in San Francisco every summer. While the original iPhone was shown off at Macworld in 2007, WWDC has hosted the official launch and first demonstrations for each of its successors in the three years following. Irrespective of what its name suggests, would you say it’s ever felt like a keynote exclusively for developers?

Things started off well enough at BUILD yesterday morning, with Steven Sinofsky singing the praises of touch-based computing to the high heavens. But then it turned out that everything you can run on Windows 7, you’ll also be able to run on Windows 8. That’s a good thing, right? Yes, on the whole it is, but it completely diluted the original message of "touch is the future" since the vast majority of current Windows programs have zero UI adaptations to make them usable with touch. Ergo, if my big takeaway from BUILD is that Windows 8 is touch computing incarnate, I stand to be bitterly disappointed by what promises to be a frustrating experience while trying to use maladapted software like Adobe Photoshop with the inherent imprecision of my physical digits.

The rest of the presentation was rich on intriguing and appealing new features in Windows — the Chrome OS-like cloud syncing being a personal highlight for me — but Microsoft’s scattershot approach ensured that, once again, the audience member was left without a clear concept of what the company is building. The keynote went into far too much depth on non-critical features (most of which could have been broken down in subsequent workshops) and managed to last a marathon 2 hours and 20 minutes. There was too much to digest, too many boxes were being ticked without a coherent narrative between them, and the appeal of the new was too often subdued with references to the old.

Where are you taking us with this, Microsoft? The answer may well be "to a wholly better place of desktop and mobile computing," but that’s too generic a message to enrapture anyone’s passions. So the result now is a Twitter that’s aflutter with all sorts of different things. Some folks are excited about the Xbox Live tile visible on the Start screen, others consider the new Task Manager to be worthy of applause (see video above), but there’s no universal "point" that everyone will get from this gathering. No catchphrase, no laconic distillation of what Windows 8 means to the person in the street. Ironically, Microsoft has an official tagline for what Windows 8 is supposed to represent — it calls it the "no compromise OS" — but yesterday’s flawed presentation undid whatever momentum that phrase may have had coming off the rather concise and successful first teaser of Win 8 at D9 in June.

In terms of substantive change, yesterday should have been about touchscreen computing going mainstream. For me, however, the day’s keynote turned into the sad spectacle of a company that continues to underserve its great technological work with basic errors in articulating its importance. And all that from a team that includes a dedicated Storyteller. Shouldn’t we expect better?