Has 'Windows' become a liability to Microsoft's mobile future?

Microsoft's biggest marketing problem with its smartphones and tablets will be the name 'Windows,' which consumers equate with 'hassles.' Maybe it's time to rebrand

Over the weekend a friend of mine, who's an experienced Windows user and relatively new iPad fan, told me, "I would never buy a Windows phone or tablet."

Never's a long time, so I asked him why.

He said, "I've had enough of Windows. It's time to get something more usable."

I sputtered a bit and ticked off a half-dozen retorts: By all accounts, Windows Phone 7.5 smarthones are quite good, and the Windows 8 smartphones will be better. Depending on your definition, Windows tablets aren't even on the market yet, so how can he judge? Some of the new tablets will run the programs he already knows and give him touch access to a different world. Windows 8 has really awesome new features, and it's rebuilt many old ones. Surely he could see all of this.

He wasn't buying a word I said. "I know Windows too well and I'm tired of it."

It suddenly struck me that maybe -- just maybe -- Microsoft's biggest marketing problem with both the smartphone and the new tablets will simply be the name "Windows." There's a strong core of people who have invested a lot in Windows, and they aren't going to change. In five years' time they'll probably be running the XP desktop in a VM on their smartphones. But the vast majority of people I know -- not just consumers but businesspeople, too -- equate the term "Windows" with "hassles."

It's not just the Gen Z folks for whom Hal Berenson's statement rings true: "For the 20-something and under crowd, the current Windows desktop experience is about as attractive as the thought of visiting a 19th-century dentist." The people I'm talking to aren't 20-somethings, they're 30- and 40- and 50-somethings. They'll go along with Windows if they have to, but if they don't have to, by gum they're going to go out and get something else. Anything else.

It certainly seems to me that moving the "Windows" brand to smartphones hasn't bought Microsoft one iota of market traction. Quite the opposite.

I'd be surprised if the "Windows" name made Microsoft's iPad-wannabes sell any better. iPads appeal to people who abhor complexity: Customers don't mind losing features if it makes using the machine easier -- it's the old 80-20 rule. Microsoft's Metro interface brings a whole lot of capability to the table, but it's far from simple.

The impending mass confusion about Windows RT and Windows 8 won't work in Microsoft's favor, either. In fact, it looks like the "Windows RT" name alone will draw fire and brimstone.

Consider: Mozilla and Google complain about Microsoft cutting off desktop-side browsers in Windows RT, knee-capping their browsers' abilities. Are they making the same complaint about iOS? No, of course not. Apple has never allowed other browsers a level iOS playing field. So why would Mozilla and Google expect Microsoft to allow Firefox and Chrome to do everything Internet Explorer can do? Gregg Keizer in Computerworld quotes Mozilla's chief counsel as saying, "The difference here is that Microsoft is using its Windows monopoly power in the OS market to exclude competition in the browser market."

That's a powerful argument -- made much more powerful by the name "Windows RT." If Microsoft had a desktop OS called, oh, Windows 8, and a tablet/phone OS called, oh, BathOS, would Mozilla and Google's argument ring so true? Would a Senate Judiciary Committee be gearing up to investigate a BathOS antitrust allegation?

Microsoft has made a lot of hay on the "Windows" brand over the years. It's made a lot of enemies, too, particularly among bewildered consumers and nontechie businesspeople.

Perhaps it's time to give the name a break.

This story, "Has 'Windows' become a liability to Microsoft's mobile future?," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog. For the latest developments in business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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