Mark Ritson: Will Windows 10 and a new browser launch redeem Microsoft’s failures?

Tech giant Microsoft owns one of the most enduring software brands in Windows, but almost managed to throw it away with Windows 8, so the product and branding noises coming from its new executive team are reassuring.

Ritson featured image

As excitement grows around the upcoming launch of Windows 10, speculation is also building around the launch of a new Microsoft browser. The company will maintain the once all-powerful Explorer brand, mainly for large B2B accounts whose software runs off the browser, but it is also in the final stages of ‘Project Spartan’ – a new browser likely to launch later this year.

Early signals are that both Windows 10 and Project Spartan provide significant improvements over existing Microsoft offerings. But that is a very low bar. Before we give Microsoft too much credit let us first pause, rewind and replay its utter marketing hopelessness in recent years.

It’s 30 years since Windows launched and it would be hard to find a more enduring or profitable software invention. Along with Office (27 years old), Windows has provided Microsoft with an almost indestructible and incredibly generous inheritance. Despite this gift, or perhaps because of it, Microsoft has managed to piss much of the profit out of the window of strategic incompetence.

Windows might be the indefatigable platform for the world’s PCs, but Microsoft has managed to almost kill the golden goose on several occasions. Most recently, Windows 8 was a total and unmitigated disaster with reviewers variously describing it as a “massive flop”, an “awkward mashup” and (my personal favourite) “a Windows Frankenstein”. Consumers quickly realised that Windows 8 was clearly inferior to its precursor, Windows 7, and ultimately only 13% of them upgraded to the new platform. Indeed, so bad was Windows 8 that millions of users paid a premium for PCs that still operated Windows 7 or followed the online instructions on how to ‘upgrade’ from 8 back to 7. Business clients, forced to bulk-buy PCs pre-loaded with Windows 8, began specifying the need for Windows 7 Professional to be pre-installed through “downgrade rights from Windows 8 Pro”.

Perhaps only Microsoft could spend millions to create an inferior upgrade that forced millions of customers to reverse the traditional trajectory of tech, and pay a premium for older versions of its software. A remarkable fail.

And then there was the older, even sadder tale of Internet Explorer. It might not have been the best browser, according to most experts, but thanks to its connection to the omnipotent Windows platform it rapidly became the most prevalent one with a stunning market share of 95% of the world’s browsing by 2000. But then, as you might expect, Microsoft turned software success into staggering, shit-eating failure once again. The very dominance of Explorer combined with the strategic inertia of Microsoft’s leadership ultimately caused its downfall. Newer, better designed and more adaptive browsers like Firefox, Safari and Chrome replaced Explorer and drove its once dominant market share down to 20%, and falling.

Uk browser stats

UK browser stats courtesy of StatCounter

Global browser stats

Global stats courtesy of StatCounter

But there is hope. Microsoft and its new CEO Satya Nadella are suddenly making all the right noises. Windows 10, which is scheduled for a summer launch, is currently getting rave reviews from beta testers. It’s a similar story for Project Spartan with techno-geeks already speculating whether the new Microsoft browser will use a “Trident rendering engine” and “Chakra Javascript”. As I don’t know what any of this means, let me focus on something I do understand: the branding.

“We’re right now researching what the new brand, or the new name, for our browser should be in Windows 10,” Microsoft’s CMO Chris Capossela explained earlier this month. He has it particularly tough because he has both brand naming and brand architecture issues to resolve. His market research reveals that creating a sub-brand with Microsoft as the parent brand drives far more switching from Chrome users in the UK than a house of brands approach. “Just by putting the Microsoft name in front of it, the delta for Chrome users on appeal is incredibly high,” Capossela explained.

Alternative names for Internet Explorer

Courtesy of The Verge

The Microsoft masterbrand may well bring increased awareness and trial for its new browser and it certainly fits the growing trend of companies operating brand architectures that are closer to a branded house approach on the brand relationship spectrum. But it also means attaching the ultimate branding albatross, Microsoft, to a product that has to succeed over the long term.

Indefatigability is not immunity and even the strongest platform can never be a panacea. This is a big summer for Microsoft.

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Comments
  • Timm 25 Mar 2015 at 5:47 pm

    Did I read this correctly? I think it says Microsoft believe that having the name ‘Microsoft’ in front of their new browser will be a real advantage and drive users away from Chrome. Really?

    • Mike Essex 26 Mar 2015 at 1:14 pm

      That’s what the market research suggests, not just an idea they’ve picked out of the air.

  • cyrus allen 25 Mar 2015 at 6:43 pm

    The very real change in customer dynamics over the last 5 years has been the uptake of cross-device browsers – e.g. Chrome on laptop, tablet & phone with synched histories and unified experiences. Microsoft’s Achilles heel may well be it’s (to date) failure to gain traction in the mobile space, not just it’s PC software fails.

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