Why Windows 8?

While Microsoft’s new Windows 8 has received an unexpected share of positive press, many skeptics aren’t convinced that the new operating system has been designed or is being launched properly.  Of all the criticisms leveraged against Windows 8, the one that resonates most strongly with me was a comment in a recent Bloomberg Businessweek piece:

“Just having the Windows name still around captures the problems of this company,” says Paul Saffo, a longtime technology forecaster.

Microsoft has spent three years and probably close to a $1BB developing the new operating system.   It represents the company’s biggest overhaul of its OS in more than a decade and CEO Steve Ballmer recently said it “shatters perceptions of what a PC really is”.  Yet the company has chosen to use the Windows moniker on it?! 

This decision seems particularly stupid in light of a case study I’ve been reading about Intel’s launch of Pentium.  (The case is from the book, Best Practice Cases in Branding:  Lessons from the World’s Strongest Brands, by Kevin Lane Keller.  Covering the stories behind Levi Strauss & Co.’s introduction of Dockers, The California Milk Processor Board’s “Got Milk?” Campaign, and Triarc Beverage Group’s resurrection of Snapple, among others, the book is a terrific resource for brand-building case studies.)

You see, back in 1992, Intel planned to introduce a new generation microprocessor.  Faced with competitors who had adopted Intel’s numeric product naming strategy, as Cyrix Corporation did with its 486SLC, Intel needed to brand its new “586” processor with a name that would initiate a new paradigm in product naming and indicate an entirely new generation of chip.

According to Keller’s case, the criteria Intel specified for the new name were:

  1. Difficult for competition to copy
  2. Be trademarkable
  3. Indicate a new generation of technology that could effectively transition between generations as new ones were introduced
  4. Have a positive association and work on a global basis
  5. Support Intel’s brand equity
  6. Sound like an ingredient so that worked well with Intel’s partners’ brands (like Dell and HP)

Keller notes that Intel undertook the most extensive search in the company’s history to find a name for the new chip before settling on Pentium.

“The company coined the name because it conveyed the positive attributes such as quality, state-of-the-art technology, software compatibility and performance that its OEM customers wanted their brands to be associated with…

“Within two years after the company’s decision to use the Pentium name, Intel possessed roughly 90 percent of the world’s PC microprocessor market and enjoyed exclusive relationships with several of the biggest computer manufacturers.  The company saw the Pentium sub-brand as an important part of its success and extended the name in branding their next four PC processors [Pro, II, III, and 4].”

Microsoft isn’t facing the same competitive challenge with its new operating system as that which vexed Intel, but its naming criteria and communication objectives are quite similar.  In fact, one could argue the need for Microsoft to break from its past is even greater.  By continuing to use the Windows name, Microsoft is missing the opportunity to signal the significance of the new OS.   The company has taken to describing its effort as “Windows Reimagined” which hardly connotes the new product’s “magical” nature, as Ballmer has effused.

I’m hard pressed to identify reasons why the company would have chosen this naming route.  Yes, the Windows name has tremendous equity, but the company has used it for over 25 years old (quite counterintuitive for a company that wants to be perceived as progressive) and it has been associated with some spectacular failures (remember Vista?!)  If Intel could build new brand equity in Pentium, I gotta think Microsoft could have done the same with a new name.  And since the company chose to develop a new logo for the new operating system, it’s not as if it isn’t willing or able to invest the dollars a new identity requires.

Perhaps the company’s refusal to cut the cord from the Windows name is symptomatic of deeper problems at the company.  Perhaps it sees innovations and new developments through the lens of incrementalism instead of disruption.  “How can we make something better,” Microsoft ponders, instead of “How can we make something entirely new?”  This is what Paul Saffo chalks it up to, saying:

“In their heads, they know the personal computer revolution is over and that they have to move on, but in their hearts they can’t do it. If Microsoft is around in 100 years, they will try and sell us a Windows teleporter.”

Only through the lens of legacy does the Windows 8 name make sense.  But a company like Microsoft should be heeding the advice of Spanish philosopher Miguel de UnamunoWe should try to be the parents of our future rather than the offspring of our past.

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