No more World’s Fairs: What Microsoft learned from Apple

It is a fascinating dynamic landscape in both software and technology hardware companies right now. Because these companies are now making a lot of their money from consumers (Apple, Google, Samsung, Dropbox, et al.), they no longer cave to enterprise demands for long public roadmaps. Over the past few years, we have seen Microsoft follow suit by changing the way they sell their products.

An article in Gizmodo by Joel Johnson a few years ago has one of the best descriptions I have heard about why Apple has succeeded – how Steve Jobs changed the way a product was sold. The article points to the World’s Fair in the 30s as an example of how large companies sold products by creating a model of the future and then some years later delivering an approximation of that ideal concept. Cars are still sold that way with auto shows displaying concept cars that eventually influence production some years later.

For decades now the general public has become used to seeing these great concepts and then finally being able to purchase a watered down version of that ideal. This means there is always a little bit of disappointment that you could not buy that ‘futuristic’ version. This has been the model of selling for a long time with companies putting out public roadmaps of where they were going and roughly when to expect their upcoming versions/models of their product. Historically, hardware and software companies have followed this model, probably because enterprises had so much influence and comprised so much of the revenue companies that they had to cave to their demands to be able to plan for these changes.

Along came Apple. The company is ultra-secretive, gives no indication of their future roadmap, and does not put out any concept models. They actually work very hard to keep prototypes from the public so they can better control every touch point and experience a customer has with their product. Apple began showing you ‘the future’ and then letting you order it that night! That was a huge shift in how to sell.  

This immediate gratification is part of the aura Apple has been able to create. The public had no model in their head of what the ideal product would look like or how it would work. They had no ‘futuristic’ concept introduced years earlier as a reference point. It was all new, very exciting, and the frenzy it created made people feel left out if they did not purchase the new product – a powerful sales tool for luxury products like Apple’s. So powerful, in fact, that Apple has been very successful introducing new products that need to be replaced by something newer and better within a year.

Google is another example. Last week, after Google introduced their Chromecast streaming-TV dongle, the device was sold out within hours. According a US News report:

“After being unveiled for $35 on Google's website, orders for Chromecast moved quickly, with CNET reporting that shipping dates rapidly moved from August 2 to August 7, with the device being intermittently out of stock Wednesday evening. Amazon.com and Best Buy also started selling Chromecast through their websites, but at the time of this article's publication, Amazon listed the device as "temporarily out of stock."

How this relates to Microsoft is that they are copying this technique from Apple, Google, and other companies who are not pre-announcing features or new products – they just launch them and then create a media buzz and consumer demand.

As you may have noticed from most of the Microsoft Office 365 services, there was little to no public awareness of what was coming and many were caught by surprise. IT managed service providers like us might not like the inability to plan months ahead for our customers, but consumers are eating it up. Look at how they check the box for 365 when ordering a Dell machine. 

So, in my opinion, it is not that Microsoft is trying to trick us into purchasing new products by taking us by surprise or shortening their product upgrade cycle because they hate us – they are just fighting to survive in a changed landscape and trying to use the techniques that seemed to have worked for other companies like Apple. As Microsoft and other software and technology hardware companies are able to shift their revenue percentages away from enterprise, we will see these consumer sales techniques implemented more often.