REDMOND, Wash.--After months of searching for ways to defend its oft-maligned Windows operating system, Microsoft may just have found its best weapon: Vista's skeptics.
Spurred by an e-mail from someone deep in the marketing ranks, Microsoft last week traveled to San Francisco, rounding up Windows XP users who had negative impressions of Vista. The subjects were put on video, asked about their Vista impressions, and then shown a "new" operating system, code-named Mojave. More than 90 percent gave positive feedback on what they saw. Then they were told that "Mojave" was actually Windows Vista.
"Oh wow," said one user, eliciting exactly the exclamation that Microsoft had hoped to garner when it first released the operating system more than 18 months ago. Instead, the operating system got mixed reviews and criticisms for its lack of compatibility and other headaches.
To be sure, the focus groups didn't have to install Vista or hook it up to their existing home network. Still, the emotional appeal of the "everyman" trying Vista and liking it clearly packs an emotional punch, something the company has desperately needed. Microsoft is still trying to figure out just how it will use the Mojave footage in its marketing, though it will clearly have a place.
The Mojave project is likely to be just one of many efforts designed to resuscitate Vista's image as well as lend strength to the Windows platform among stepped-up competition from Apple and Google. In an interview Wednesday, Windows unit business chief Bill Veghte told CNET News that he wants to see his unit try new things to get the message across.
"We have a huge perception opportunity," he said, offering a glass half-full assessment of things. "We are going to try a bunch of stuff."
The image improvement effort, known internally as FTP, has many components. Well-publicized are the hundreds of millions that Microsoft plans to spend on a broad campaign buttressed by edgy ads from Crispin Porter and Bogusky. But Veghte wants the company pushing on multiple marketing fronts.
With small businesses, for example, Microsoft earlier this month launched the "Assurance" campaign. In that effort, Microsoft is offering free Vista-related technical support, a move that will add millions of dollars to Microsoft's telephone support costs. The point, Veghte said, is that businesses want to see Microsoft standing behind its product.
Veghte is convinced, like others at Microsoft, that despite early technical challenges, Vista's problems are primarily ones of perception.
Much of that perception, Microsoft belatedly acknowledges, stems from Apple's successful and unchallenged anti-Vista campaign. But, after stewing over the ads on many of his morning runs, Veghte decided that it was time to strike back, even without a new version of Windows to tout. Apple, he said, has "crossed a line" from fact into fiction.
Others at Microsoft have been sounding a similar note. Marketing vice president Brad Brooks told partners earlier this month that Microsoft was "drawing a line in the sand," while Steve Ballmer promised in a memo to employees Wednesday that after doing some hard technical work on Vista that it was now time for Microsoft to "tell our story."
"In the weeks ahead, we'll launch a campaign to address any lingering doubts our customers may have about Windows Vista," Ballmer wrote. "And later this year, you'll see a more comprehensive effort to redefine the meaning and value of Windows for our customers."
What gives the Mojave project its power, though, is the fact that it isn't Ballmer or someone else at Microsoft saying that Vista has gotten a bad rap. It's everyday people.
With scenes reminiscent of both Apple's "real people" campaign of a few years back as well as classic commercials from Folgers and others, the Mojave project could prove a formidable weapon.
The Mojave project is remarkable both for its humble origin as well as the speed with which it was pulled off. The idea started barely two weeks ago in an e-mail from Microsoft's David Webster to several superiors, including Veghte. Given the green light, Microsoft started videotaping responses just last week, in San Francisco. The preview Veghte gave to CNET News on Wednesday was the first time the footage had been shown outside the company and its contractors.
The footage could get a public airing as soon as next week or even at Thursday's financial analyst meeting, although plans were still in flux as of late Wednesday night. Veghte will come under increased scrutiny now that his boss, division president Kevin Johnson, is leaving the company. For the time being, Veghte and Windows engineering chief Steven Sinofsky will both report to Ballmer, who has called the work on Windows the company's top priority.
The need for the campaign is clear. Apple has been making inroads, as well as headlines with its anti-Vista push. Although Microsoft dominates in corporations and in overseas markets, Apple has been grabbing a significant share of the consumer market in the U.S., pushing its overall domestic share as high as 8.5 percent last quarter, a significant rise from even a year ago.
Microsoft is already at work on Windows 7, the next version of the operating system. But Veghte said the company can't wait for a new product to start firing back.
"I've got to start having that discussion in the marketplace," Veghte said. "I've got to start driving that now. People feel guilty (about Vista). It's wrong."
Microsoft hasn't said a ton about Windows 7, but it has talked about both a new multitouch interface as well as reassuring customers, particularly businesses, that it won't be making the kinds of dramatic changes under the hood that were made with Vista.