Microsoft to focus on experience

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Microsoft Corp.'s renaming of flagship Windows and Office software products reflects its desire to move beyond the techie's world of bits and bytes and into the more palpable realm of experience.

The software giant earlier this month announced that the characters "XP," short for "Experience," will be added to Windows and Office upgrades due out later this year. While the name change appears merely cosmetic, executives said it speaks to the essence of the improved products, especially their more-intuitive interfaces and abilities to work seamlessly and easily with digital photographs, music files and video.

"What users are really starting to ask questions about are experiences," said Jim Minervino, general manager of branding who is part of Microsoft's Central Marketing Organization. Microsoft researched the "Experience" concept among its various customer segments. "It was an interesting idea ... Microsoft delivering experiences instead of just applications," Mr. Minervino added.

Office XP is due out in May, Windows XP in the fall. Both will be supported by major ad campaigns from Interpublic Group of Cos.' McCann-Erickson Worldwide, San Francisco, highlighting various customer experiences. For example, Windows XP's "Always On" feature enables users to boot the PC once and not have to do it again for several months; a "Support Experience" is exemplified in a feature whereby users can transfer control of the desktop PC to a third party capable of diagnosing and fixing problems.

The XP concept evolved over nearly two years from discussions among Chairman-Chief Software Architect Bill Gates, CEO Steve Ballmer and Craig Mundie, senior VP-consumer strategy, according to Mr. Minervino.

"As we looked at what Steve, Bill and Craig were talking about and what's being built into the products, we asked how can we communicate to people that this set of products is more than just a version upgrade," he said.

WPP Group's Landor Associates, Seattle, created the name and packaging. The Leonhardt Group, Seattle, handled visual identity development; Microsoft's branding group handled strategic positioning.

The drive toward "Experience" represents an outgrowth of Microsoft and its partners' evangelization of the extended PC concept. Microsoft, positioning the PC as a digital activity hub, both for consumers and business customers, this year will promote visceral experiences facilitated by Windows XP and Office XP. Microsoft in the past used version numbers, such as Windows 3.0, on products. It switched to year designations-Windows 95-beginning in late 1995.

The new products' look and feel reflect a simplicity Microsoft has rarely achieved in previous generations, according to people who have used beta versions of the software. The emphasis on application- and data-driven user interfaces, while ubiquitous to computer users, has long been problematic for Microsoft, which has never been able to achieve the elegant simplicity of Apple Computer's intuitive interface.

Executives have already begun thinking about how the .NET business strategy of delivering software services via the Web will relate to the "Experience" concept. For example, eBay provides an auction experience. In the future .NET world, Web services will communicate with one another and online auctions wouldn't need to end at a specific time-they could have provisional end dates or times, Mr. Minervino explained. When the auction ends, a notification is sent to all devices-PCs and handhelds-regarding the final bid.

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