Lately I have been reading more technology sites than usual, as I have spent much time in bed whining due to having had four colds in the last four weeks. One of the things that has struck me that whilst there is generally a much more positive attitude towards Microsoft, its software and services on general tech sites, than, say, two years ago, there are hardly any editorial reviews or even substantive previews of Microsoft devices. Just lots of display adverts.
Now that Microsoft are finally making devices that can run rings around the competition, is it not a shame that when it comes to marketing them they seem reluctant even to enter the ring? The Surface 3 and Lumia 640 XL are definitely worth shouting about. They are extraordinary devices, not just in terms of hardware quality, value for money and arguably design, but also because they, quite purposely, do not fit neatly in well-defined categories. Which is to say categories originally defined by Apple, and copied by every leading manufacturer of Android devices.
These differences are difficult, nay impossible, to make clear to anyone when you rely heavily on display advertising, as Microsoft does. This is supplemented with difficult to obtain, presumably frighteningly expensive, mobile operator store display space. No doubt a good thing, but it must be challenging as I presume sales staff have about the same incentive to sell one iPhone 6 Plus as they have in selling three Lumia 640 XL smartphones. I know which device I would be pushing if I were unlucky enough to work in a Vodafone store.
Microsoft’s marketing nous as well as musical taste will have evolved since the launch of Windows 95, so I doubt they will call on The Rolling Stones to promote Windows again later this year. The internet is awash with technology reviewers and opinion-formers. Traditional media feature extensive technology sections both in print and on the web. In fact, through blogs, micro-blogs and social networks pretty much everyone is a tech reviewer and opinion-former. Microsoft do not seem to get that.
Microsoft’s marketing and PR strategy fails to target even the biggest and most influential general tech sites, or indeed any other tech site apart from “safe” ones with a Microsoft focus. No matter how attractively and informatively the devices are presented on microsoft.com and microsoftstore.com, if they are the only places you can find them, Microsoft just cannot hope to generate any of the hype, buzz, genuine social media and word-of-mouth interest and opinion that Apple in particular, but also Samsung and Sony have been so successful at.
To demonstrate my point, I challenge you to go to any tech site and fail to spot one or more reviews of the Samsung Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge, an HTC One or any number of high-end Android smartphones from other manufacturers. Open any newspaper, in print or on the web, and it is likely it will feature a review as well. Apple have not released an iPhone for a while, but its ludicrous companion Watch is written about everywhere ad infinitum, even though I doubt it will find a home on many wrists. The new Apple MacBook is also getting attention, much more richly deserved. Only the HTC One M9 is available to buy, many of the rest do not even have a UK release date.
At least you can try out the Apple Watch and the MacBook as of today, if you should fancy visiting an Apple Store (accurately and amusingly described as a magnet for tourists and truants by New Yorker).
Many of these reviews are well written and researched, some are even well reasoned. The authors of every single high quality piece and surprisingly many of the laughably poor efforts have had access to the device they are reviewing, and have spent many days using them. If you are to stand any chance of creating a review worth reading, this is essential. This is true whether the product breaks new ground technologically, or only with new ways of relieving you of your money. Microsoft do not seem to get that.
The Lumia 640 is out, shame no-one noticed
The Lumia 640 hit UK shelves this Tuesday, but is yet to hit the press. This is a pity, as it is a fine Windows Phone at a delectable price. Now, I know the world does not share my enthusiasm for Windows Phone, but even the evolutionary Lumia 640 deserves better than to be ignored. Given that Microsoft bothered to make the Lumia 640 and are putting quite a lot of money into Windows 10 for Phones, presumably they agree.
The few reviews, or more accurately pre-reviews I have come across, were released after the phone went on sale, and on sites with a Microsoft or Windows Phone specific focus. It should be blindingly obvious that this makes it impossible to build any hype, interest or general awareness, no matter how good the Lumia 640 may be.
Windows Phone market share in the United States is dismal, so perhaps the tech press just cannot be persuaded to take a new look at it. If so, this is a shame, as If they did, they would surely discover how much has changed for the better since 2012. In Europe (a pretty sizeable market) the situation is a bit less dire. Microsoft sell many more phones, enjoy greater brand awareness and have a reasonable advertising and retail presence. I am sure the press and general tech sites would at the very least give it a fair hearing.
Preaching to the converted is not a strategy for growth. Windows Phone clearly needs to grow in order to remain viable, and if Microsoft hope to eventually make a fresh assault on the U.S. market, the only platform available to Microsoft for building market share, credibility and consumer awareness is in Europe.
Will the Surface 3 meet the same fate?
I presume that the Surface 3 will get far more publicity, which it deserves, in the UK and worldwide, but the release date is getting close. The Surface 3 will be shipping on May 7, the day of the UK General Election. I live in Winchester where Labour stand to get 5% of the vote, but I still got an election leaflet from them this morning. I find it a bit sad that coverage of the Surface 3 in the UK press and general tech sites is more paltry than Labour party canvassing in an unwinnable seat.
This is especially disappointing given that the Surface 3 is a truly revolutionary device which blends work and play in a way that no tablet has to date, and with the performance, form factor, weight and design to not only make a serious impact in the tablet market, but the potential to create a new category. No Microsoft device has managed that before, and what is even better for Microsoft is that neither Google nor Apple can possibly offer a product to challenge it in this category.
Introducing and explaining a device in a new category to consumers is rather difficult, and I hope that Microsoft have devised a PR and marketing strategy for the Surface 3 which is capable of doing so. But the clock is ticking, and it would be a pity if the millions of people for whom the Surface 3 would be useful never get to find out about it. An extremely selected few seem to have got their hands on a Surface 3, and reviews will no doubt follow next week, but seeding devices to a few geeky tech insiders builds neither hype nor a dedicated following, and stands little chance of reaching ordinary consumers and business users, in other words the target market.
Lumia 640 XL – A brilliant device, but will anyone notice?
The only UK review, or more accurately a pre-review I have found, by someone who actually has got the phone, is from All About Windows Phone. From the name, you can probably tell it is NOT a general tech site. It is a good pre-review, and the author gets a lot of things right about what makes the Lumia 640 XL extraordinary. Not only is the Lumia 640 XL (£219) worthy of being compared with the Apple iPhone 6 Plus (£619-789), one of the top 3 phones in the world, but it is good enough to put up a strong fight, and not just because it it is 3-4 times cheaper.
As good as the AAWP article is and the full review should be, there is no doubt that Microsoft are again preaching to the converted. If the aim was merely to avoid losing market share, such a core user strategy would still be inadequate. Now that Microsoft finally have a truly compelling Windows Phone in the Lumia 640 XL at the insanely low price of £219, including a 12-month Office 365+OneDrive subscription, it seems insane not to take the opportunity to build market share and audience in the markets where it is possible to do so.
Don’t worry, Microsoft, Beyond the PC is behind you…
…as long as you keep making stuff that people like.
I have already written about the Surface 3 and both Lumia 640s. From specs, naturally. I have more to say about the Surface 3. From specs, no doubt, as I do not expect Microsoft offering me either the Surface 3 or the Lumia 640 XL to review, or even inviting me to a press event. This is just NOT FAIR. I pre-ordered, and endured, both the Surface RT and the HTC Titan, the first Windows Phone to reach these shores. Both devices were years ahead of their operating system. Come on, Microsoft, do the decent thing and give me a chance to enjoy and report on the experience now that the operating system and Microsoft hardware has finally caught up with technology!
If, as seems likely, my plea falls on deaf ears, even though I wrote Microsoft a birthday greeting far funnier and more articulate than Bill Gates and everything, we will probably buy one or both devices and write about them, but even if Beyond the PC was considerably more influential in the world of tech journalism, this would be too little, too late.
Microsoft, it really is time you started to tell people about the great stuff you now make that a lot of people would probably like if only they knew about them. Copying the best bits of the marketing strategy of Apple, Samsung, Sony, LG and HTC would be a great place to start. Please do not copy their industrial design or the ridiculously excessive feature set favoured by Android device-makers. Also, for god’s sake, do not make a £13,000 Watch.