Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer has a new job: overseeing the company's entertainment and mobile businesses in the wake of high-profile executive departures. It's not the first time Ballmer has taken the reins of struggling business units, having managed the Windows and Internet search businesses directly at different times, but arguably Microsoft doesn't need new management.
It needs new brands. Especially in mobile.
Microsoft has sought to extend its Windows brand to a diverse array of technology, from SharePoint to Windows Phone. Windows is a powerful brand. But it's also a brand that screams "20th century."
And while it's a safe and predictable brand for enterprise IT, more of the world is being driven by consumer spending, including the normally enterprise-friendly PC market. Windows isn't a brand that speaks to consumers.
It's certainly not a brand that tells the world Microsoft has something revolutionary to say about mobile.
For good examples of consumer branding, Microsoft could look to its peers Apple and Google. Neither one of these market leaders dresses up their mobile efforts in old brands. Apple didn't try to brand its iPhone the "OS X iPhone." Apple understands that the consumer demographic is focused on the device, not its operating system.
Google, for its part, does heavily brand Android, but it doesn't make a fetish of tying that brand back to Google and allows device manufacturers, wireless carriers, and others to tweak the software to fit their needs, obscuring or even eliminating the branding altogether. Not only that, but Google even competes with its own Android brand with Chrome OS.
Only Microsoft seems determined to force an out-of-date operating system brand onto the future. It's not working.
Ballmer tries to paint the executive departures and lack of market leadership in a positive light in his e-mail to Microsoft employees, but the company seems incapable of innovation in the critical mobile industry, and it starts with its inability to give up the Windows brand.
J. Allard, Microsoft's now departing chief experience officer, disagrees:
We're the only high-tech company with the track record and self-confidence to reinvent ourselves as we have. If you want to change the world with technology, this is still the best tribe out there.
Fine words to say as one is leaving his job. Allard will stay on as an adviser to Ballmer on "a specific set of projects," according to the company.
Microsoft knows how to rebrand. Look at Bing, which has been gaining market share since it distanced itself from Microsoft's more traditional branding. The Xbox, too, has been a hit, in part because of its emphasis on "Xbox," not "Microsoft."
Microsoft is a strong company that makes great technology. But its branding is somewhat stale. To get an edge in mobile, the company should dump "Windows" and embrace something edgier. Something more like Bing.