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Microsoft marketing onslaught begins

Brace yourself: It's already beginning to look like a Microsoft Christmas.

Starting in a few months, you may not be able to hide from the software giant. The company and its partners will spend $1-billion or so on months of ad blitzes and promotions touting Windows XP, the new version of the company's flagship computer operating system, and Xbox, its new video game system. Both will be released this fall, and company executives discussed them with Florida reporters in Miami Beach last week.

The company's early line on Windows XP: It's easier to use, more reliable, with more features. And, of course, you can't live without it. But, as Microsoft has demonstrated in the past, what it tries to feed consumers isn't always digestible. And that may be the case with some aspects of the new Windows, starting with the setup when you initially activate the software.

The premise for "authentication" seems fair enough: You load Windows on a computer, then a serial number has to be registered with the company. If it's not, the new Windows will stop working after 30 days. Activation can be done online or by phone, said Brian Luke, Microsoft's international marketing manager. (Using the phone, a user gives Microsoft an installation code shown on the PC screen and Microsoft responds with a confirmation ID number for the user to type in.)

But there's a twist: If you register online, Microsoft gets a snapshot profile of the PC and ties that copy of Windows to it. Don't even think about trying to load one copy on two PCs, which technically is illegal anyway but is a custom that has taken hold in many homes with multiple PCs. Microsoft calls it "casual copying" and wants it stopped.

The problem grows if your computer crashes and you need to reload Windows. You have to notify Microsoft, which gives you a code that allows it to reload. Call it the "Mother, may I?" mode. A reactivation also can be triggered if the user adds or changes a lot of hardware on the PC.

Questioned about the inconvenience this causes, Luke tried to put the best face possible on this feature: It's simple to do it online. Well, that works with a cable or DSL Internet connection, but it failed when I had to use the same feature on Office XP with a machine using a slow dial-up connection on a phone line.

In that case, Luke said, it's just a phone call to Microsoft. For people whose computer isn't working, it's another hassle that will only add to the frustration, as it did mine when I had to reformat a PC's hard drive, reload Office XP and call Microsoft.

Microsoft is trying to do something about software piracy, spokeswoman Beth Jordan said, although she acknowledged, "Most consumers are not copying software."

Microsoft usually plows ahead with its plans, being the 800-pound gorilla of the tech world. Occasionally, though, it backs off. It has dropped a feature that would have used its Internet Explorer browser to create links to Microsoft sites from any Web site after criticism led by columnist Walter Mossberg of the Wall Street Journal.

Windows XP is not yet a finished product, and more tinkering likely will be done before it is released Oct. 25. But it has some compelling features:

A new, cleaner look. The desktop can be a clear expanse of wallpaper, with users going to the Start button for their programs.

More descriptive icons. Icons can identify a Word document and include a few lines of description.

Less tech jargon. Microsoft executives said Windows XP follows Office's lead with error messages and help that are in English rather than the mysterious gobbledygook that puts fear into the hearts of many PC users. It also has the same feature as Office to report the errors to Microsoft so fixes can be offered.

Task panes. As in Office XP, task panes give users easy access to functions when they open a folder or file. For example, clicking My Music shows the music files you've saved and also choices such as play, copy or burn a CD.

Yet there's also a feature that again shows how Microsoft is using its operating system to build its empire: In the task pane in My Music, a user can click on a link to shop online for music, but it goes only to Microsoft's MSN site. It is not customizable so users can go to the music site of their choice.

Microsoft squeezed in the XP preview as about 12,000 Microsoft employees gathered in Miami Beach last week for strategy sessions and pep talks from honchos Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer.

Microsoft planned its campaign behind closed doors, shutting out the media. Gates made only a token public appearance to donate computers and software to schools in South Florida. The Miami Herald published a story about disappointed business leaders who were unable to schmooze with Gates.

The focus, company officials said, was all business, which means figuring out how to convince consumers that Windows XP will change their computing lives.

It's important not only for Microsoft, but also for a tech industry eager to turn around its slump. XP's role can't be underestimated for another reason consumers might not like:

To use XP, many people will have to buy a new computer.

_ Dave Gussow can be contacted at gussowsptimes.com or (727) 445-4228.

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