Ann Arbor Area Business Monthly
Small Business and the Internet

The Empire Strikes Back

October 2008

By Mike Gould

I just watched the new Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Gates ad for Vista, I think. In this extended skit (the second such, URL below) Jerry and Bill visit with just plain folks, talking over family bedrooms, determining the value of Greek coins, and eating scalloped potatoes for dinner. In the first ad, Bill and Jerry visit a discount shoe store. Hilarity ensues.

What is one to make of this? This seems to be in response to the "Hi, I'm a Mac - I'm a PC" ads that Apple has been running for years. Rumor has it Seinfeld will earn a bazillion dollars for his participation, which is ironic considering that he is known to be a Mac user and his apartment in "Seinfeld" always had a Mac sitting on a desk in the background. Hey, for a bazillion bucks I will shill for Bill too (contact my agent).

Bugging Microsoft
I think that the point of all this is that the new Apple ads are highlighting out how easy it is to switch from Windows, and Microsoft (MS) is getting irritated at the defections it is seeing. Sales of Macs are way above the average sales of PCs in these recessive times, and MS seems to be getting antsy.

Now this is significant because, heretofore, MS has treated Apple like an irritating gnat, not worth the effort to swat. But now the gnat seems to have grown into a wasp and MS is hauling out the big guns (Seinfeld?) in order to restore some order to their empire.

The current ads are a study in post-post-ironic surrealism, in that there is no mention of what they are selling: Vista, presumably. The story goes that these ads are but a warm-up to the real deal which will probably start showing up in ad #3 or #4. By ad #5, I'm sure that Jerry and Bill will be waxing rhapsodic over the virtues of Vista (MS's currently underwhelming new operating system, for those of you Mac folk out there or anyone else who hasn't bought a PC recently).

Ad Wars
What will be interesting to see is if the ads will dis Apple's OSX directly - naming names as the Apple ads do. What will also be fun to watch is Apple's response. Will they refer to the MS ads in some snarky way? I can just see this coming soon to TVs in your neighborhood:

Mac (Justin Long): Hi, I'm a Mac.

PC (John Hodgman): Hi, I'm a PC and isn't that Jerry Seinfeld just a complete cut-up of a Windows Vista user? It's so good to be seeing fair and balanced advertising.

Mac: Um, I think he's a Mac user who's being paid to tout Vista.

PC: So what, I'm also an actor who uses a Mac at home; I just don't get a bazillion dollars for it. It is just so not fair (starts sobbing)...

Now I am a fan of the Apple ads, especially of Hodgman, who is a fantastic comedian and writer. But comparing the Apple stuff to the MS stuff is literally Apples to Oranges. (There is in fact an Orange PC company, but I'm not going there.) Apple's ads are little mini parables of the comparable features of the two systems, while MS is setting out on an epic worthy of Samuel Beckett's "Waiting for Godot". I'm enjoying the MS ads just to see where they are going with this.

Bill Gates of Mayberry
Given the "just plain folks" aspect of this ad campaign, it looks like the message is that Vista is good for regular Joes, just as it is for the second-richest man in the world and the world's richest comedian. The Vista computer system is for the "rest of us", as if the rest of us had an actual choice in the matter. People usually buy what they use at work, which is usually PCs. Macs are for us irregular Joes who know better. (Um, let me re-phrase that: us prune-eating healthy computer users who know better.) But those PCs at work are not moving to Vista at any appreciable pace, so MS needs to get the word out that Vista is good for you. And this is how they are going about it: droll stories from the Bill & Jerry show.

But there must be enough people switching to Macs to irk the powers that be at Microsoft, another reason for the new ads. Could it be that America's computer users are starting to become clue-enabled? I'm not holding my breath. Things are improving on the Mac side, but the sheer bulk of entrenched PC users are not going to go away anytime soon, no matter how easy it is to switch.

Microsoft's problems are compounded by the failure they are seeing in most of the other areas they are attempting to move into. Their iPod knock-off, Zune, isn't going anywhere, their games division has been losing money for years, and their attempts to rule the Internet have been stymied for years by their bad browsers and effective competition from Google and others. MS is threatening to create an iPhone killer, which probably also won't go anywhere.

So we live in interesting times: an era that is seeing the rise of Internet-based computing, serious challenges to the status quo (if there ever is such a thing in the digital universe), and a feisty underdog finally prodding a plodding giant into swinging that big club. I can't wait.

Addenda: Yes, I still love the iPhone 3G I wrote about last month. Haven't seen any of the problems others have reported, and am the envy of the Tech Services department. Oh yeah, and I am now fully-employed at the UM again, having accepted a temp assignment as School of Education webmaster. We'll see how that works out.

Links:
Ad 1: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WAAJOABtpkY
Ad 2: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gBWPf1BWtkw

Mike Gould, is a part-time mouse wrangler for the U of M, runs the MondoDyne Web Works/Macintosh Consulting/Digital Photography mega-mall, is a member of Factotem.com, and welcomes comments addressed to mgould@mondodyne.com.

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