Microsoft is one of my oldest clients, the launch of Windows 95 was almost like art. Since then, it pains me to say they have aggressively done product launches badly. In sharp contrast, Steve Jobs took over Apple and repeatedly showcased how to do it right. It wasn’t just the presentation, it was also the packaging. It got so bad that even Microsoft’s own packaging guys created a video showcasing what the firm was doing wrong. But institutionally the company just didn’t seem to get it.
However, this week at its hardware launch it finally got it right again with a vengeance (thank you Kathleen Hall) and if you’ve been watching the coverage of its Surface Book it paid huge dividends. This is a learning experience that I think should be shared. Microsoft is hardly alone in the practice of doing product launches badly and more firms could benefit and learn from its mistakes.
Events have a reason for being
Unfortunately, it seems vendors often view these events as things that they have to do and forget they are supposed to get reporters, and by proxy, buyers excited about buying their products. They are generally instead showcases for how well some never-to-be-seen-again executive can read slides or a poorly placed prompter.
In the new Steve Jobs movie, the Jobs character talks about playing the orchestra. I learned the background behind that statement: When he was hiking barefoot all over India (not a wise thing to do by the way) in his youth he became fascinated with evangelists or holy men. These men could hold large audiences enthralled for extended periods. Despite being in a very poor country they were able to get the people to donate money to what apparently was a very lucrative life style. Folks that could barely afford to eat donated money to these “holy” men who would then buy luxury cars and mansions and no one seemed to care.
Jobs learned that if you had strong stage talent, if you seeded the audience with “believers” and if you executed like they do a show in Las Vegas or Broadway, you could move minds and sell lots of products (or just get people to give you money). The products didn’t even have to be that good (recall when Jobs first arrived at Apple he thought the products were crap but he still got enough folks to buy them to keep the company afloat). Fortunately, he fixed the products otherwise this all would have likely come crashing down, but his was one of the recurring examples that firms either wouldn’t follow or wouldn’t repeat.
Microsoft actually did this for the Windows 95 launch, which kind of copied on a larger scale the launch of the Mac. I watched AMD do this one year with great results and then never do it again. It was kind of frustrating. How could people not get how powerful this is even when they did it themselves?
The Microsoft Surface launch in New York was flawless. The best parts were the Lumia Phones (the demo guy really was a pro), Hololens X-ray and the Surface Book reveal. The presenters were all very professional, the audience was salted with fans of Surface, Xbox and even the Microsoft Band (surprised me, too). Energy was high, and the products were arguably the best that Microsoft has ever brought to market in hardware, and it all worked fabulously.
By this point I’d kind of given up on Microsoft in terms of launches, but they surprised me (I kid you not there was actually a point during this thing that I teared up I was so pleased ) and showcased just how powerful doing one of these things right can be. Everyone was rehearsed, everyone was on their mark, and the only hiccup was a prank one team played on one of the presenters which actually worked as a bit into comic relief.
Microsoft makes a comeback in how to launch new products
The contrast between a tech show like CES and a car show where new automobiles are presented is dramatic. The car show is staged and the cars are professionally showcased and presented in the best possible fashion. At a tech show it is often folks reading specs off slides on way too many products and the only excitement is wondering whether the person next to you is going to snore, fall off their chair, or whether the nimrod on stage had ever actually seen the products or script before that moment.
All product showcases should be staged events professionally done where people leave excited about what they saw. They should not be tests of survival and our ability to stay awake. Steve Jobs knew this (see the movie if you can) and it appears Microsoft now does as well. Whew.