Foley on Microsoft

Microsoft's iPhone?

With Windows Home Server, Microsoft finally appears to be following Apple's marketing lead -- and it just might work.

Microsoft released to manufacturing last month a consumer product that stands a good chance of being popular from the get-go: Windows Home Server.

When I say "popular," I'm not expecting any queues winding around the block at Best Buy or Circuit City, which will be carrying the first Home Server models. I'm not anticipating TV and radio feeding frenzies. And I'm not predicting we'll see an onslaught of rave reviews-all of which preceded the launch of the Apple iPhone in late June.

But Windows Home Server will be a good litmus test of whether Microsoft will be able to take a product that seemingly has mass appeal-and has met with almost universally positive beta reviews -- and turn it into a home run.

Taking a page from Apple's playbook, Microsoft didn't preannounce Windows Home Server years before it was ready to roll. In fact, the Windows Home Server team operated for more than two years under the veil of secrecy, with only the occasional leak making its way out of Redmond about some kind of home server called "Quattro" or "Q."

Once Microsoft took the wraps off the product at the Consumer Electronics Show in January 2007, testers all wanted a try at the Home Server beta. Slowly but steadily, Microsoft grew its tester pool, with ultimately tens of thousands of testers downloading Release Candidate 1 of the product, which officially became available in mid-June. Company officials kept open channels of communications via blogs, and user requests for features didn't fall into a black hole. In fact, a number of them actually found their way into later Home Server betas. And the majority of people who test-drove the product seemed to genuinely like it.

Windows Home Server has a lot of the same things going for it that Apple's iPhone had, but with fewer of the potential technical drawbacks the first iPhones are now experiencing. Those would include slow EDGE network connectivity, initial phone activation problems, no removable battery and a touch keyboard that's not everyone's cup of tea.

Using as a benchmark LogLogic Chief Marketing Officer Andy Lark's list of the top seven things Apple did to build demand for the iPhone, it looks like Windows Home Server is off to a good start. Lark's list includes:

  1. Held a big-bang launch that maintained suspense by holding back as much as it gave away.
  2. Maintained a carefully managed content flow.
  3. Kept the message simple: It's an iPhone.
  4. Listened to what users wanted and delivered with finesse.
  5. Stayed true to the brand, absolutely.
  6. Focused on what the technology can do for you, not what the technology is, thereby capturing our imaginations.
  7. Leveraged the community.

Microsoft definitely has its work cut out for it when it comes to Nos. 3 and 6. The Redmondians have wrestled the past few months with how to encapsulate all of Home Server's backup, media-sharing, remote access and health-monitoring functionality into a single catchphrase. And as Softies themselves admit, the company hasn't always been the best at talking up the human aspects of technology. Microsoft typically has favored feeds and speeds over customer needs in its marketing messages.

I think the biggest difference between Home Server and the iPhone, however, will be in whether Microsoft can harness the energy of the community in rolling out the final version of the product.

There's zealotry and there's zealotry. Microsoft does have its fanboys, but they're nowhere near as rabid and protective of their favorite technology vendor as the Mac base. (And that's not necessarily a bad thing, except for publicity.) After all, it's more fun to root for the underdog than for a company that still has more than 90 percent of the client operating system market in its back pocket.

Do you think Windows Home Server has the possibility to become a sleeper hit for Microsoft this fall, when the first Windows Home Server systems go on sale? Let me know.

About the Author

Mary Jo Foley is editor of the ZDNet "All About Microsoft" blog and has been covering Microsoft for about two decades. She's the author of "Microsoft 2.0" (John Wiley & Sons, 2008), which examines what's next for Microsoft in the post-Gates era.


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