Microsoft's branding woes threaten to undercut its progress

Microsoft announced handful of truly innovative products over the past few months, but bumbled branding will keep customers wondering

You may love Windows 8 and its new (formerly Metro) tiled Start screen. You may hate it. You may be withholding judgment until the final bits settle. But there's no doubt at all that Windows 8's a towering engineering achievement -- an amazing mixture of old and new, brilliantly executed.

Windows RT, particularly the tiled (formerly Metro) interface on a Surface tablet, has become the most eagerly awaited Microsoft product in recent memory. Windows RT Surface may decimate Apple's lead in the iPad market. It may fail horribly. But from an engineering point of view, by all accounts (admittedly based on fleeting fondles), it's a force to be reckoned with.

Outlook.com brings Hotmail back on par with Gmail, using a (formerly Metro) minimalist design, reined-in advertising, and a handful of new features to finally give Google a run for the money.

Even Windows Movie Maker, for heaven's sake, restores features that were killed years ago, combines them with capabilities amateur movie editors need, and delivers Microsoft's first real movie-editing product since the Windows XP days.

One after another, we've seen strong technical challenges coming out of Redmond these past months -- an engineering renaissance that comes like a breath of fresh air from a company too long entrenched in reinventing the same-old same-old.

So would somebody please tell me why Microsoft's doing such a supremely inept job at branding?

Last week I complained about the death of the Metro brand. By taking away a readily identified description of the "new" interface and not giving us a name to replace it, Microsoft's ensuring that a raft of supporting technologies -- from books to apps to websites to T-shirts -- are going to emerge on October 26 in a jumbled mess. Perhaps we can all refer to Metro as "the new Windows 8 interface" (it's neither new nor confined to Windows 8) or the "tiled interface" (sounds like my kitchen) or "the interface formerly known as Metro" (my personal favorite at the moment) or "inherently full-screen, fast, and fluid" (gag), but until Microsoft gets that branding act together, we're just confusing all of those consumers who are genuinely interested in learning about what's new in Win8.

Which brings me to "Windows RT" -- don't get me started. A branding gaffe of the first degree that doesn't explain, define, or entice consumers, the name alone may prove the downfall of the Surface tablet. How in the world is the average sales clerk going to explain to Joe Public that "Windows RT" means "Windows 8's tiled (formerly Metro) interface, plus some scaled back Office apps that can't run any current add-ins, and a few as-yet-undefined ancillary programs on something that looks a little bit like the old Windows 7 desktop, but definitely won't run any existing desktop programs"? Saints preserve us.

Then Microsoft announced it was throwing away "Hotmail" -- one of the most widely recognized brands in the world -- replacing it with a website for a name, Outlook.com. The new name reminds me of those ".com" and "@Home" brand names that were so cute in the '90s, except in this case, the name's based on a product that's rather universally feared, and in many cases detested. Perhaps I should say "products." There are so many different versions of Outlook running around, it's hard to understand how Microsoft felt it would entice consumers by adding another to the list. One thing's for sure: Outlook.com doesn't resemble any of the existing Outlooks, not even close -- which is probably for the better, frankly.

Finally, last week Microsoft released the latest version of Windows Essentials 2012. Or maybe it's Windows Live Essentials 2012. That's the problem, it's neither fish nor fowl. As best I can tell, most of the new Windows Essentials programs are identical to last year's Windows Live Essentials programs -- Windows Live Mail, Windows Live Family Safety, Windows Live Writer, Windows Live Messenger, and the Outlook Connector Pack -- but two are new. Windows Photo Gallery is a minor upgrade from the old Windows Live Photo Gallery. Windows Movie Maker rates as a major upgrade from the old Windows Live Movie Maker. Microsoft also tossed in the free SkyDrive app, apparently for comic relief. The company announced long ago that the Windows Live brand is on the way out. So why a new edition of the old products, with Live/not Live mixed branding?

Microsoft has some dynamite products coming down the pike. But botched branding will leave customers bewildered. Guaranteed.

This story, "Microsoft's branding woes threaten to undercut its progress," 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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