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Without 'cool factor' Microsoft may never see true consumer success

The company is part of the "background" of many of our lives. That's both a blessing and curse. The blessing is Microsoft's products and services help many of us get things done.

The curse is that Microsoft's presence is often like the white noise used to lull people to sleep.

Conversely, Apple and Google are like hit songs that are intentionally turned on, cranked up, and for which the lyrics are memorized and sung in sync with the artist. These companies are synced with consumers in a way Microsoft is not but needs to be. For instance, Microsoft's premiere product, Office, is the industry's status quo for productivity. It's how we get work done. But for many, it's an uninspiring and boring necessity.

Apple's premiere product, the iPhone, and various phones running Google's Android, however, are fun. They make users feel good and are part of their personal expression. Apple and Google have what many call "cool factor." Microsoft? Well, it's getting there.

Microsoft has money to burn, resources galore and is a globally recognized brand. Microsoft also ranked ninth in the 2016 Top 100 Millennial Brands: Moose Tracker Report. This was above number eleven ranked Google but below number one ranked Apple which is also the most valuable company.

So why can't Microsoft seem to emerge from a position of background noise and leap to the forefront of what consumers want?

The personal computing disconnect

Personal computing is Microsoft's forte, and 88.75 percent of homes and businesses that use PCs use Windows PCs. That fact is a legacy of Microsoft's heyday when the company's PC dominance in the enterprise trickled into the consumer space. Smartphones are now the go-to "computer" for many personal computing tasks.

Smartphones function as an access point to a horde of personal information making them the most personal object most of us carry. They're also the portal to the broader ecosystems of the providers of mobile platforms. This portal has helped Apple and Google, the two companies that dominate the mobile space, cement themselves in the collective minds of the masses.

Daily, billions of users interact with Google's and Apple's ecosystems in ways that feel good and personal, not required and functional, which is often Microsoft's plight. Microsoft isn't oblivious to its poor consumer rapport. It's made multiple, but failed, attempts to bring its enterprise success to the consumer space.

Microsoft flops: Kin, Kinect, Windows Phone and Zune

Here are several areas where Microsoft failed in the consumer space.

Microsoft Kin

After two years of development and a strategic acquisition of Danger Incorporated), Microsoft in 2010 launched the social network-focused Kin smartphone.

It was targeted at the trend-setting 18- to 30-year-old demographic. The phone was only on the market for 48 days when it was unceremoniously discontinued. It briefly returned as a cheaper but also unsuccessful feature phone.

In-fighting within Microsoft resulted in the project falling under different leadership, a change in the original vision and a delay to market, and all of that is blamed for Kin's demise.

Microsoft Zune

Launched in 2006 Microsoft's Zune) was the company's answer to Apple's iPod which launched five years earlier.

Zune HD

Zune HD (Image credit: Windows Central)

Apple's significant lead continued with its 2007 launch of iPod Touch two years before the 2009 Zune HD. In addition to consumer mindshare, Apple garnered developer and other support which supplied Apple's ecosystem with millions of apps and accessories that supported the iPod's market position. Unable to compete, the Zune was discontinued in 2011, five years after its launch.

Kinect

Microsoft's Kinect, which used a natural user interface of motion-detecting and voice interaction was introduced in 2010 as part of Xbox 360. In 2011, the Kinect SDK was announced as well as the Kinect for Windows program. There was a lot of anticipation as hundreds of companies around the world had shown interest in building apps for Kinect.

Though the Kinect 2.0 received deeper Universal Windows Platform (UWP) integration and Windows Hello capabilities late last year, the initial fervor for the myriad uses of the technology in various industries has significantly diminished. And the consumer-facing gaming aspects for Kinect have all but fizzled out.

Windows Phone

After an enduring presence in the enterprise-focused smartphone space since the early 2000s, Microsoft finally entered the consumer smartphone market three years after the iPhone and two years after Android in 2010.

Windows Phones' fluid and unique OS never caught on with consumers. Limited marketing and distribution, "breaks" in the platform on its way to OneCore, poor developer support, a lack of inspiring flagships, and the buggy Windows 10 Mobile have been the platform's plight.

A reputation for having no apps, the vocal discontent of disenchanted fans and consistently negative press have poisoned the waters for Windows phones among consumers.

Windows phone isn't dead

These flops and a history of early innovation with little to no consumer-facing follow through have hampered Microsoft's consumer success. Microsoft could have beat the iPad and Siri to market, for instance, based on early investments in tablets and AI.

It's not all bad

Microsoft introduced Xbox in 2001, and despite competition from Sony's PlayStation, unrelenting investments made it a consumer success. Similarly, unyielding commitment and drive turned the failing Surface into a category-defining (2-in-1 PCs) billion dollar business and one of the industry's most respected brands.

TV marketing ads, network TV product placements (for example, Black-ish) and corporate partnerships such as the contract with the NFL position Surface beside Xbox in the consumer consciousness. Despite NFL commentators' references to Surface as an iPad, Microsoft is gaining "cool points."

The Surface is still in a battle for "prime time," however. ABC News reporters "use" the Surface, kind of. Throughout the news segments, Surfaces remain untouched on the news desk, behind the iPads that the reporters actively use. Hopefully, Microsoft can get ABC to move from displaying Surfaces to using them on national television.

Still, the brand has expanded to include the college student-focused Surface Laptop, and the Apple's creatives-stealing Surface Studio. The former has yet to be tested in the market, and the latter has piqued the interest of its intended target.

Furthermore, Microsoft has added and will be bringing new features to Windows 10 such as Paint 3D, Mixed Reality, system-wide inking and more, which the company hopes will appeal to consumers. Microsoft's Mixed Reality wearable computer, HoloLens, is arguably the coolest product it has created. If it were ready for the consumer market, the company would doubtlessly be considered cool. Alas, the next iteration of HoloLens has been pushed out to 2019.

Part of pop culture

Despite Microsoft's Xbox and Surface success and potential with Mixed Reality, to the average consumer, the company doesn't occupy the same space as Apple or Google. As the leading search engine, "Google" has become a verb in our dialogue when it's time to, well, Google something.

Apple's former CEO Steve Jobs through vision, standards for quality and marketing genius, imbued the company and its products with an intangible value that the media and consumers "feel" to this day. Additionally, movies about this iconic leader are an expression of the influence he and Apple had on the world.

Microsoft needs to do more with its 'do-more' vision

Microsoft doesn't have the pop culture appeal of Google and Apple. As a "do-more" company, it has focused on providing businesses and individuals with the tools to do more.

Its enterprise-focused legacy has taught the company to exist "in the shadows" as the platform or infrastructure that helps others get things done. This mentality and associated marketing methods don't work in the sensory, in-your-face consumer space.

Myerson Windows 10

Myerson Windows 10 (Image credit: Daniel Rubino / Windows Central)

Successful consumer-facing companies aggressively tell consumers why they need a product, how it'll improve their lives, and convince them it solves a problem they didn't know they had. Beyond Xbox and Surface, Microsoft lacks the aggression and stamina its rivals have in this regard.

Microsoft leads in innovation but is slow to turn ideas into products, allowing competitors to beat it to market. The One Microsoft initiative was supposed to enable greater nimbleness by restructuring teams. That hasn't fully materialized.

Microsoft's struggling to reach consumers at a point in history when personal computing has never been more consumer influenced. Will Microsoft have the aggression and stamina to market its student-focused Surface Laptop against the MacBook? What about Surface phone or a consumer-focused HoloLens?

Sadly, until Microsoft is ready to "do more," it may always covet that elusive cool factor.

Jason L Ward is a columnist at Windows Central. He provides unique big picture analysis of the complex world of Microsoft. Jason takes the small clues and gives you an insightful big picture perspective through storytelling that you won't find *anywhere* else. Seriously, this dude thinks outside the box. Follow him on Twitter at @JLTechWord. He's doing the "write" thing!

168 Comments
  • Thanks for reading folks! Apple and Google have what Microsoft needs, 'cool factor!' And though there are cool things going on in Microsoft, most consumers just don't see them yet. Hopefully since personal computing is more consumer influenced than ever, Microsoft will get that need cool factor 😎 and build that rapport with consumers it so desperately needs. Well LET'S TALK!!!!
  • windows 10 fluid design system and the surface line up is a great step in that direction and I love it..but the thing that bugs me every single time no matter what is that they don't market their as efficiently as the other big names like google or apple...for instance in my country a non enthusiast unlike us is aware of an iPhone (and unbelievably some also know a google pixel) and they buy just for "cool factor" as jason...but the same people never even heard there is something called a surface line up...i donno what is this thing with the marketing division of microsoft but they should seriously change... I don't think they lack much in 'cool factor'(Right now) but I seriously feel they lack the show off that the other companies do
  • Microsoft has to many different brands too. Also, as a brand "Microsoft" has more syllables than Apple and Google, very inconvenient.
  • That's why most people just refer to it as MS -_- 
  • I don't know anyone who refers to it as "MS."  Even its stock ticker is longer:  "MSFT"
  • Like Windows 10 mobile. Not cool!
  • W10 Mobile is GREAT!
  • Microsoft should split off their consumer OS and rename name it surfOS. Still pronounced Surface, but it's an OS? Get it? The WIndows name is old and lame and makes people think about work and boredom.
  • @SenorGravy Been saying that for years!  Microsoft naming of their phone OS did them in.  Very few people want to use a Microsoft device because it reminds them of WORK!  Word!  Excel!  PowerPoint!  It doesn't conjure up anything COOL!  It doesn't.  I might see past those things but the regular Joe and Jane does not.  It's really that simple.
  • I agree with you on this. They have enough cool stuff specially in recent they have gotten pretty cool. Its their lack of proper communication with layman target audience and proper marketing. They tried to do it with Windows 8 when I remeber even in India it was launched with funky songs and dance numbers in ad and people loved it but the product was not very impressive there. MS has a traditional problem of living in techie's bubble. We love them for this because that's a company where engineers handle everything and as a Computer Engineer I like that notion but that breaks things with other common people. But I would say; I have observed that they also feel it. Probably they should just go to big firm such as Wieden+Kennedy which did "Where do you wanna go next" for them and that campaign is the most succesful campaign for MS as of now. Proper communication is what's needed for MS. 
  • Microsoft still relies way too much on the "Windows" brand.  It's an old brand associated with "your job"... and carries A LOT of "baggage." Whatever the next iteration of Windows Mobile/Phone is... it should not be called "Windows"... even if it is strongly related to Windows and Office.  There's nothing wrong with highlighting the synchronicities... but the "Windows" brand is tarnished.
  • Totally agree.
    To the masses Windows means viruses on the PC, blue screens and tiny work cubicles. Windows should be by association only and not the headline act.
  • Agree.... I've been saying this for years.
  • Thanks Jason... This has always been Microsoft's problem. The Xbox did well because there is a huge gamer community and it's one of those things, you make good games, that are fun and show quality, the gamers will come. Windows has always been known (from Win 95/98 days) for gaming, so it was fairly easy for them to go this way. The Xbox was known as the DirectX box (Microsofts internal name for it)before they took the name of Xbox... It's a Windows core with DirectX in a nutshel. As for Mobile devices, the KIN failed because of a lot of Microsoft's politics but, one of the other big issues was Verizon wireless. They were exclusive on the KIN/KIN2  but, they insisted that it was a smartphone and put a mandatory $29.99 a month data plan, it got out of the range of most yonger people.  It was dead on arival because of this. If Windows was NOT a needed thing for PCs (If you read the story of how Bill Gates started Microsoft, you would know he was smart but, he was in the right place at the right time...), and another company created "Windows" Microsoft would be a low volume, or even failed company in a competive market. No matter the billions they spend on Marketing, they really have no clue on how to hit the "hip" consumers, they have always have lost this anagle. I think just the name "Microsoft" is not cool to young people because of what they do for the business world. It's why Windows Phone is pretty much dead, They had to climb over the "hip" hill but, they gave up before they hit that market.
  • Cool factor, schmool factor.  You hit on the real answer in your article.  The products that Microsoft creates and then continues to invest in, support, market, and refine generally find success (Windows, XBOX, Surface, Office).  The ones that they barely support, rename several times to confuse any consumers, and then abandon mystified by their lack of success, don't succeed (Zune-XBOX Music-Groove, Windows phone or mobile or whatever, RT).
  • Windows 10 mobile is not for normal people it's for business class people.....but on the other hand Android and iOS are for all.....do they really know that business class people are less in number comparing with non business class people...even Microsoft employee use iPhone because it's not as buggy as windows 10 mobile.....less features high price ........and poor app......poor developer support.....even poor support from Microsoft....they also push their user either to iOS and Android eco system....so it's better to stick with iOS and android.....why do I care for windows 10 mobile when they only care for business people....I have Ubuntu so no use of windows 10 neither any problem of wanna cry???????  
  • Do you ever get tired of shilling for Google and Apple? Why anyone hire you to write for this site I'll never know. Every article you writer is the worse than the last.
  • Hi Hhammack I'm sorry you're not pleased with the content. Of course you don't have to read it if that's your desire. There are many other writers or topics here you might prefer. Just let the title of the piece and author by line be your guide if that’s what you wish. :-) Now I noticed your discontent with this and other pieces revolves around the erroneous notion that I am shilling for Apple and Google. Please review the dozens of articles I've written since I began writing for the site in 2015 www.windowscentral.com/author/jason-ward where you will clearly see that is not the case. One of the things that makes writing analysis for any company helpful is viewing that company within the larger context in which it exists. No company, not even Microsoft, exists in a box. Decisions made by other companies, consumer behavior, market forces, trends, technological advances, laws, government actions (remember the DOJ ruling against Microsoft?) and more affect the success and failure of a company's endeavors, even Microsoft's. For example Microsoft was in the mobile phone business long before Apple or Google. It had even achieved over 40% market share at one point. Clearly that level of market dominance is no longer the case. Why? Did Microsoft suddenly stop offering its mobile OS in 2007 or was there a force outside of Microsoft that began to affect its position in the mobile space? Of course we know that the latter is true. Apple introduced the consumer-facing iPhone which turned Microsoft's enterprise-focused efforts on its head. Microsoft had to scramble in response to what Apple and subsequently Google, via Android, brought to the market. Hhammack you can't tell one story without including (at least in part) the other. The same applies in various areas where Microsoft competes with other companies. Whether its offering a Music service - Groove vs Apple Music vs Google vs Spotify, Browsers: Edge vs Chrome vs Safari, OSes: Windows vs MacOS vs Chrome vs Android, productivity suites, cloud services, digital assistants, the list goes on. Talking about what the competition is doing provides context as to WHY Microsoft is doing WHAT it is doing and what is may do next and why. Rest assured, Microsoft is certainly taking about what rivals are doing behind the hallowed walls of Redmond. :-) So no I'm not shilling. :-) I'm telling the story as it should be told, by intelligently including information that provides context to the focus of the content. For any analysis and its communication to be most effective you have to look at the broader context not only the content, or subject that is the focus. I hope that helps you understand why I include information about what other companies are doing and why Windows Central hired me to write for the site. :-)
  • MS continually makes one huge mistake in my not so humble opinion. It announces what appears to be cool stuff and then leaves the actual delivery date until 6 or months later. By this time what was cool 6 months ago is ho hum now. For heaven's sake, can someone tell Nutella that when he announces cool stuff and he has our interest that is the time to close the sale, not 6 months later because we have switched off by then.
  • A bit rough calling Kinect a failure, it just ran out of steam as many products do with changing technology but was a massive success early on for several years and in the process entered the Guinness book of records for being the fastest selling consumer device on the planet !
    I wouldn't mind a couple of failures like kinect.
  • Yup totally agree, Kinect was pretty successful and Google is far from Cool...
  • I would have to disagree with you on that. I think google is cool. Microsoft not so much.
  • Google is far from cool
  • Ms needs to lower prices on consumer products.
  • Guess, in the price department the title should say: "Don't be Apple!", lol. I see where things are going that Surface is too much of a premium to even get access (esp. outside U.S.)--to the point of diminishing returns. Surface is innovating, yet some of its components are questionable, like: Storage/RAM on devices in terms of price & value Surface Studio still using fusion drives (low SSD/big HDD)--when Apple devices like MBP/Mac Pro (quit using fusion drives since 2014, and stayed for PCIe/NVMe) Surface Pro/Book/Laptop (check MS STORE) with the round-up, everytime you upgrade +128/8Gb you add $300, on top of upgrading i5 --> i7 extra $200/300... is getting astronomically ridiculous; +accessories Pen/Keyboard/Dock of your choice Most of that drives/forces us to the middle-ground choice, where it is slightly affordable (i5/256/8gb)--which we usually spend $1300-1600 for Surface. Wish MS would consider their pricing, or at least setup a decent price bar because other OEMs follow-suit (with lower pricing, but less reliability). If it doesn't happen, I guess we'll be seeing articles like this more on Windows Central, :) https://www.windowscentral.com/how-add-cheap-storage-microsoft-surface-book
  • Wow!! Just wow!! Respect for you sir. Amazing article.
  • I honestly think one of the other areas where Microsoft falls behind in is globalisation. Microsoft is a very US-centric company and anyone would be forgiven for thinking Microsoft forgets that the rest of the world exists a lot of the time. After all Zune never made it outside of US; Microsoft Stores only just barely have recently escaped the states (from what I remember & even then not for the big players like England, Germany, and France), We're still waiting on Microsoft Pay too, as well as a lot services being subpar in comparison (We can't even use Jen Taylor on our phones without switching regions!), and we've only -just- received Microsoft Rewards (aka Bing rewards). All of this and I'm sure so much more too (such as lack of advertising).
  • Microsoft desperately needs a mobile platform.  It made a terrible decision to dump the Nokia line. The shrinking of the PC to a small portable package a.k.a. Mobile has changed the consumer and business world forever.  These devices are becoming crucial to society and the lack of developer support for Windows will cripple MS for generations.   MS will win in business PC, compete in cloud and gaming, but losing in consumer mobile also means losing in Auto, Business, Payments and Financial, Home Automation, etc.  As an example, his week I had a business trip and a family members high school graduation.  I used my iPhone to check in on my flight, board my plane, open the door on my hotel, and navigate to my meetings with CarPlay.  Later I withdrew funds from an ATM with my phone, ordered pizzas for kids, and bought a coffee to keep me going.  The next day I purchased movie tickets and scanned in at the theater.   With my old Lumia 950 with Win 10 mobile I would've only been able to do 40% of this and it would have been a crappy experience.   MS should buy LG, Spotify and rebrand Sync with Cortana and a UWP experience.  
  • For me it's simple. Love. Google and Apple love mobile. They understand its the primary user platform in the consumer space now on which their vibrant consumer ecosystem links to it. With Microsoft it's a mere device category. The enthusiasm launching the Lumia 950 could not have been less. Having launched it they managed to make sure almost no one at Microsoft ever used it again. If they really loved the offer instead of seeing it merely as a necessary offer they might get somewhere. Do remember things like Zune and Kin were US only. Another problem for Microsoft is they need to morph into a global company. Apple and Google have done that. Microsoft not so much. With double figure Lumia sales in Europe during 2015 they abandoned their best selling markets first. 
  • taint
  • Great article yet again. I have been saying this for a while now. That picture for this article says it all. The most uncoolest thing possible is in that picture. They look so freaking stupid and no one at MS seems to care.
  • do they look stupid...for me nope ...but yeah for somebody who doesn't give a damn about VR and AR..it may look...BTW if you keep the HoloLens and the present vr headsets like HTC vive, the vr headsets looks way more stupid because of the wire from the back and all the sensors surrounding us
  • No one is talking about AR VR. I menat they, They look dweeby in the picutre, that picture of Terry, Joe and Alex was painful. Anything Joe Belfiore's face and hair is involved in hurts Microsoft's chances profoundly. You dont have to agree with me for it to be true. It is true. People I know look at MS and they look at that stupid picture and I can not convince them anymore how cool HoloLens is, how great Windows Mobile was. I cant!!! I have tried but the super dorkyness and cornyness of the Stupid Ninja Cat, makes them a Joke!!!
  • You are exactly right, sir. Since when is looking androgyn or hermaphrodite cool?
  • Mick Jagger's done pretty well, as have Michael Jackson, Prince and David Bowie, just to name a few...
  • Thankfully, one man's cool is another man's bull... That's what makes the world spin; for better or worse. I for once, find silly droid can or bit off fruit much dorkier. Remember, MS logo is pertinent to it's arguably most successful product. The ninja cat is just that...sarcastic middle finger to the former two ;).cheers!
  • SIGH... I think I need to begin learning a different language. Obviously No one seems to understand what I am saying even though it's crystal clear.
  • It is crystal clear and you're 100% right.  Those guys look like dorks, and they should not be the ones promoting products.  Simple.
  • How many normal users do you think knows who Belfiore is, or have ever seen that picture? It's likely something like 1 in a million...!
  • Totally agree!  Not a cool picture at all!  Now Brian "Like a Boss" Roper was cool!
  • Timing is everything, it's not just the cool factor. Just 2-3 years ago, Microsoft was too slow to give us consumer products. Windows Phone was too late. Zune was too late. Groove was too late. Kinect was just a flop, same as hololens. Now the Cortana speaker (yes, Microsoft has nothing to do with manufacturing) with it's fall launch is too late again. Everything Microsoft does for consumers, is always too late. Surface line is an exception because Surface is a premium product and always has something "new". Windows Phone didn't help with 6 months gaps between introduction and "shipment".
  • Sadly late or canceled...
  • To me, that's one of the biggest differences to Microsoft and Google. At Build 2017, Microsoft unveiled an incredible amount on new features. And their coming out towards the end of this year. However, at Google IO 2017, some of the features that they announced have already come out, in just 2-3 weeks! That's much better that what I have ever seen Microsoft do.
  • That's because Google is the #1 company that people want to work for. Google has poached many talented MS enginers over the years and that's why they can deliver features fast and Microsoft takes forever. They simply don't have enough talented engineers left.
  • Tell this to Nadella who fired many good engineers. Not all went to Google and others on their own will you know...Take for example ex Nokia engineers, the ones that actually knew something about movile phones, were fired, and you(not you you) expect MS to succeed when they have zero people with high experience in phones??
  • I don't get this flop idea.  How was Xbox Music a flop?  It wasn't.  It was the best music service money could buy.  Just because Microsoft didn't promote it widely doesn't mean it was a flop it just means people didn't know about it and therefore people didn't sign-up.  Tell me which other music service let you download 10 songs per month for you to keep for life?  That was Xbox Music aka Zune.  Even though the monthly fee was $14.99 if you downloaded your 10 songs at $1.29 per song the plan was actually $2.09 per month.  And you could still stream as many songs as your heart desired.  This was a no brainer!  It was not a flop.  It was a failure with Microsoft not promoting their system properly.  And for some consumers who didn't do the simple math to realize this was the best package out there.  All other plans that cost you $9.99 per month with NOTHING to keep can't touch Xbox Music aka Zune at all. Same with Kinect.  My main TVs (three in total) that has an Xbox attached all have Kinect.  And Kinect works flawlessly for me.  It's no flop to me.  Again, just because Microsoft gets lazy and refuses to market their products wisely doesn't mean the products are flops.  It's the selling and promoting of the products is where the issue lies.  Windows Phone which should have been named something else IMO, was hampered by the name itself.  WP was at 10% in some countries and seem to be gaining ground until Microsoft decided to abandon all that was good with WP OS.  They got rid of the ME tile.  Rooms.  Panoramic Photo Hub.  Zune Music.  Kids Corner.  Reduction in integration of social sites in the People Hub.  Leader of the Camera in a cell phone.  And finally instead of leading they incorporated those useless Hamburger menus removing the ease of the ... ellipsis.  These things worked well!  They weren't flops!  They just won't marketed correctly IMHO.
  • It's true.  You can't rightfully call something a flop if it isn't marketed at all.  I guess you could say the promotion of the product was a flop, even if the product itself was brilliant.
  • They may have been technically sound, but they were all market failures. That's the point:  for Microsoft to be successful in the consumer market, they need to be more than just technically proficient.  Just because you build a product that works, doesn't mean that it will find a successful market. All these products found limited success in the marketplace, but none of them met Microsoft's own expectations of success.  Thus, they were failures.
  • Smack on about Windows Phone! A basically great product slowly getting dumbed down and ignored by it's own company...
  • Hololens wasn't a flop, it was never released to consumers. As