You know that thing where somebody who’s incredibly talented and beautiful and all around great today was once the valedictorian and a nerd that nobody loved on prom night, so now, in their current state, they’re not quite sure how to carry themselves, vacillating between supreme confidence that they’re awesome, and crippling insecurity bubbling up as self-deprecation?
That’s basically Microsoft right now.
The trajectory of Microsoft, if we start back at 1995, roughly runs from king of the entire fucking world to deeply loathed manifestation of evil and boring, terrible technology — it makes OFFICE — to, today, the creator of some of the freshest feeling technology products around. Xbox and Live set the standard for online console gaming; Kinect is a tiny revolution, not just for gaming but other fields; Windows Phone is pretty great; and Windows 8 looks and feels potentially amazing. Microsoft finally seems to have a sense of vision in its core products that is different and, for the most part, good. To use the Domino’s thing, it sucked, but now it’s better.
So it’s a little strange to see just how utterly insecure Microsoft, the world’s biggest software company, can seem sometimes, like a nerd wounded and broken after being turned down by his prospective prom date years ago. It can’t stop explaining itself, trying to convince us that it’s really cool now — I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard a phrase along the lines of, “Metro is authentically Microsoft” as if I couldn’t believe Microsoft didn’t steal its new interface principles from someone — all the while carrying a chip on its shoulder about the fact that people have not thought Microsoft is cool for a very long time.
It erupts in weird ways, almost like a verbal tic that it can’t quite suppress. For example, at an event the other night with some of the company’s most brilliant designers — the people behind the Metro interface and Xbox and Windows Phone — the moderator leading the discussion, a Microsoft employee, was compelled to say at one point: “One question I’ve got to ask, and I imagine some of the people in the room want to — this fresh approach to design at Microsoft, is it a reaction to Apple?”
Surprise, the designers very politely explained that no, it wasn’t. But no, nobody in the room was going to ask that. Because we already knew the answer. Yet the idea that we wouldn’t ask about Apple wasn’t in the realm of possibility.
Then, when talking about the Metro interface principles a few minutes later, he couldn’t help but say, “Strip away the chrome isn’t a reference to a another browser.” The thing is, we weren’t making that reference, he was referring to Google’s Chrome browser there. Why bring it up at all? I guarantee you, when you were talking about interface chrome, my brain was not like, “Oh like Google Chrome LOL Microsoft gawd.”
The new ad for Internet Explorer 9 practically revels in self-loathing. Then there’s the weird brinkmanship of that Smoked by Windows Phone challenge that predictably went awry. You could go back further, too, to its weirdly Apple-dignifying-yet-self-affirming “I’m a PC” campaign.
It’s not that a giant chip on your shoulder is a bad thing, necessarily. Apple is the biggest technology company in the world now, and one of the most amazing things about it is how long Apple’s managed to maintain a pose of deep aggrievement, a sense of being an underdog constantly under assault (from bad taste, other companies, terrible technology) even as it’s sold hundreds of millions of iOS devices to become the perhaps most profitable company in computing. It’s part of how Apple’s stayed hungry.
And it’s working for Microsoft right now. Windows Phone’s Jeff Fong politely declined the suggestion that Metro is a reaction to Apple — and I don’t think it is a direct reaction along the lines of “oh man, Apple, we need to make something new, quick!” — but as Windows’s Director of User Experience Sam Moreau told me in January, one of the things that allowed design to go front and center at Microsoft was “a strong competitor.” Microsoft, the underdog, got a lot hungrier than Microsoft, emperor of the whole world.
The thing Microsoft should’ve learned at the prom is that no one fucks passive aggressive vindictive nerds totally lacking any sense of self-esteem.
Some of Microsoft gets that. One of the designers told me last night, “The biggest marketing budget in the world can’t make up for a shitty product” and right now, Microsoft has to slowly rebuild its reputation “one good product at a time.”
So Microsoft, if you make good things, and you know that you make good things, just do that and show people why they’re good. You don’t have to tell people you used to suck. We know. You don’t have to talk about how much that other guy sucks. We know. You don’t have to tell us that you came up with it all by yourself. We know. Just make good things and keep doing it, over and over and over and over again.