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June 20, 2013

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Editorial – Microsoft, what the Hell are you doing?

by Master Pillow

By now most Internet savvy people would have heard that Microsoft has decided to do a complete 180 and remove the DRM requirements for the Xbox One, re-instated used game sales through physical media and completely eliminated the once per day Internet connection requirement.  Not content with these changes Microsoft also made the system region free.  You can read the official press release for more information here.  While this news will be comforting to some and ridiculed by others the point of this post is not to go over the finer points of what has changed but rather to ask a simple question: Microsoft, what the Hell are you doing?

People who know me realize that I have long stood up for Microsoft whenever I felt people were unfairly slagging them not from some misguided attempt at brand loyalty but to merely point out that many were regurgitating well-known catch-phrases without understanding the fallacy in their argument.  Calling Microsoft the Evil Empire ala Star Wars and Bill Gates as being the Emperor might be worth a few chuckles but there are plenty of other corporations which are even more Draconian and downright anti-consumer than Microsoft.  That doesn’t absolve them of sending Netscape to an early grave but by and large this sort of bullying tactic is used by every single company out there for their own advantage.

Products like Windows Vista might have started out on the wrong foot but gradually redeemed itself and the furor over Windows 8 and its missing Start button continues to amaze me as many verbally eviscerate the product without ever trying it.  That said part of Microsoft’s problem is that they have had compelling products but have continuously shown little acumen in marketing them.  That doesn’t just mean hiring a firm to make coherent advertisements but also getting the word out there and evangelizing their products to the point where everyone understands why they would need to spend their hard earned cash on it.

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Regardless, Microsoft’s past marketing mistakes don’t hold a candle to the next to complete farce that the Xbox One is now going through.  I previously called out Microsoft for totally botching its crisis management in the wake of the DRM debacle and the less than coherent answers given by its executive staff and today’s reversal adds more fuel to the fire.  When you have your team all giving different answers to the same questions there is no one in the world who will think you are leading well.  It gives the impression that there was no prep time allocated to making sure everyone was on the same page prior to the Xbox One reveal leaving everyone to flail away by either attempting awkward spinning, providing vague answers or downright getting the facts wrong.

This is so completely frustrating to say the least.  Control the message even if it is going to be bad news and you will mitigate the fallout.  Clearly Microsoft execs had something else in mind and continued flailing away for weeks as everyone interested in the system became more confused, frustrated and in the end probably abandoning the system for its rivals.

And then today the other shoe fell when Microsoft recanted its previous position and caved in to consumer demand for change.  Consumer advocates will probably be elated but that is not the point of this post.  For the Xbox One situation to degenerate to this point takes a serious lack of skill by many in Microsoft’s executive team and I really do get the impression that heads are going to roll very soon.  You just need to look at Steven Sinofsky, the head of the Windows division, who was turfed soon after the launch of Windows 8.  By comparison to that the Xbox One situation is far worse as the brand has suffered huge damage in public opinion and it is debatable how much good will they have won by reversing themselves.

I have no doubt this will increase Xbox One sales but it is going to take a Herculean effort by Microsoft to rebuild trust not only with the fans but the developers/publishers as well who now have no promise of added revenue through the more draconian DRM measures.

If I were marking the Microsoft Executive team I would give them all a failing grade not for their decision to go with a more restrictive system but for sheer ineptitude for selling their vision and plan for the Xbox One.  If they had come out and confronted these issues head on, were all on message and provided key examples of what advantages their new policies would have over the old system it would have gone a long way in at least educating consumers as to the benefits.

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For instance, all they really needed to do was show a short demonstration of how the family sharing feature would work even if it was “faked” and not quite ready to turn live.  They could have shown how a user in Toronto shared his game library and how his friend in New York could access the library and play a game for free.  That would have gone a long way in at least showing consumers that the new system had huge benefits so that one person could buy the game but share it to ten of his friends.

If Microsoft was feeling incredibly brazen they could have made fun of the old system of physically giving the disc to your friend and made it into a comedy skit by focusing on the fact that it was unlikely anyone would lend a disc to someone outside of their own city.  Imagine a Microsoft commercial where some poor bloke decides to share his game with a friend on the other side of town and had to traverse a raging snow storm where he’s met with untold challenges such a polar bears or rampaging penguins or anything ludicrous just to emphasize the sheer inconvenience of the delivery method.  Then all you’d need to do is hard cut to the new Xbox One dash and show a friend press a damned button on the controller to share the game and voila!  His friend on the other side of town can play his game from the comfort of his own home.

Kinect now comes bundled with each system.  That’s great for some and awful for others.  Yet anyone with half a brain understands that this is the reason why the Xbox One is $100 Quatloos more expensive than the PS4.  Okay.  Now explain in a clear coherent manner why the $100 decision to include Kinect gives it a massive advantage over the PS4.  Admittedly, they did some of this in their initial presentation but they didn’t do enough to close the sale.  They had to totally sell the $100 price difference so what better way than to show how all the cool things in Kinect 2.0 would work.

Instead they made the decision to show a lot of the new Kinect 2. 0 tech only to game journalists but that is not who you need to convince!  You need to convince regular consumers by showing them real practical applications.  Voice controls to turn on the box and switch channels or use Skype all sound good but what else is there?  Heart beat recognition sounds amazing but where was the demo?  Why not just throw a video of someone doing aerobics in front of a TV and then showing how Kinect can read the heartbeat?

How about doing something cool and showing how Kinect 2.0 can make surgery better or by showing how it can be used in a teaching situation?  Not only does this makes it look simple for people to clue in on the concept and in turn get excited in its application but it gives them a small glimpse into the power behind the tech and how it can benefit society above and beyond the realm of video gaming.  People now look to technology as a kind of religion and what better way to sell your product if you can show it is for the greater good.

What about gamers?  Core gamers hate Kinect but what better way to convince them then in showing how the new Kinect will fix all the issues with Kinect 1.0 and then show them in a demo how it is done.  It doesn’t have to be totally unique as I don’t think developers have truly figured out how to utilize the technology to the fullest but it would still have benefited if they showed a demo of, let’s say, Battlefield 4 and then having someone play with the controller yet voice command each individual team member to do specific tasks.

You could even show a stealth section with a spec ops team and then use only motion commands to order your men around in order to kill a target.  Whatever.  You just need some imagination and then, this is key, show the damn thing working!  Even if it is just “proof of concept” it provides a visual avenue in which consumers can understand its application and then become excited to see how all the supposed new technology works in tandem to provide an experience above and beyond its competition.

Things like this would have gone a long way into educating and then justifying to the public that the Xbox One had huge advantages over its rival.  It’s basically a way of saying, “Yeah we know you don’t like some changes but this is why it is good for you.”  Microsoft basically failed to communicate and promote their product once again except this time it is even worse since now they have to turn tail and spin their policy reversal as some sort of “win” that they listened to fan complaints.  However, I doubt that many will read this reversal in such a fashion and continue to bash Microsoft by saying that they can never trust a company for even attempting such a move in the first place.

This policy change even ends up making Sony appear more like a knight in shining armor as it has allowed them to build the perception in the public that they are the market leaders going into the next generation as Microsoft has basically caved in and ended up following their moves instead.

If Microsoft wants to hire me to kick some ass there I’m certainly available.  There are talented dedicated people working there that want nothing more than to give the best product to the public but these communication missteps are just so infantile in nature it makes one wonder what is going on in the upper echelons of the company.  In the end it is up to leadership to ensure these sorts of rookie mistakes are avoided and that means it ultimately falls on Steve Ballmer to ensure his team is all on the same page.  With so much misinformation and a next to total lack of skill in implementing crisis management strategies it seems the company is like a beached whale floundering and flopping over the ground in a million directions but going nowhere fast.

This needs to be corrected ASAP or else Microsoft will continue to be the butt of jokes everywhere.  I still think those saying the Xbox One is doomed are deluding themselves as Microsoft has more than enough time and financial muscle to turn this around but man are they making it tougher on themselves than it should.  I’ve never really said this before but after this entire Xbox One debacle and the company’s lost decade it might be the time for a wholesale change in leadership.  A leader has to present a vision for the company and a clear plan that everyone understands.  Clearly, that didn’t happen with the Xbox One.

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© 2013 The Galactic Pillow

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