We are all familiar with the messaging of various large companies; they are messages we run into every day.  We’re going to take some time occasionally to look different companies and what stories they are telling and how they’re doing at it, so watch this space for more “Case Studies.”

I want to start this “Case Studies” series with an examination of the three corners of the computer world–Microsoft, Google, and Apple. Let’s start with the names.

  • Microsoft: now here’s a name that says “corporate” and “professional” and almost “clinical.”  When a Microsoft computer is abbreviated it becomes a “PC” for “Personal Computer.”  As in “I’m a PC.”  This message is consistent and there really isn’t anything personal about it.  It’s formal, corporate, professional, and conservative.
  • Google: hmm, if I think back to my first impressions of this name they were something like… “What? That’s a pretty stupid sounding name.”  Today, however, the name means what Google has made it mean–SEARCH, COOL TOOLS IN BETA FOREVER, INNOVATION, FREE, OUTSIDE THE BOX, FUN, LIGHT, EASY BUT POWERFUL.  And you could probably think of more.
  • Apple or Macintosh-Mac: Apple is a fruit that we all know and love, and it has instant recognition.  It’s simple and individual. Did you realize that “Mac” is a nickname?  “I’m a Mac” works so well in part because it is a nickname for the company–Macintosh.  This is a personal, hip, simple, computer with style.  Mac’s messaging isn’t corporate, it isn’t even big–first and foremost it is simple and cool, and who wouldn’t like a computer named “Mac.”

There’s a lot in a name. But these companies all have enough market share that we know their story, or something about their story without them having to tell us directly.  Still, you can see the Microsoft is really an enterprise oriented solutions company, although personal use also important to them.  Google is universal, unusual, and innovative.  And Apple is simple, stylish, personal, and high-quality.

So let’s look at what these companies are doing to tell their story, especially online.  Although the wave is pretty much past now on the “I’m a Mac” campaign, it really went viral online with lots and lots of people creating their own versions of the commercial, or counter commercials, or commercials for other things. The “I’m a Mac” campaign was simple, like a Mac–this kind of internal consistency is important–and it personified the computers with people.  When it comes down to it would you rather meet a suit, or a person?  Would you rather call your computer by a nickname, or by an impersonal abbreviation. These contrasts were played nicely, and spun… notice that the PC wasn’t a polished suit, but a chubby controlling suit (unfortunately this even fit the iteration of Windows the ad targeted as well).  Also the hip cool guy was clean and good looking, not on the ugly slob end of the spectrum. In the end there are a number of reasons these ads were so popular and effective.  They told a compelling story that was consistent with Apple’s look and feel, ethos, and also exploited the weakness in the competition’s position.

Microsoft is, at this point, the company that’s trying to fit in again, after having dominated the computer world for a number of years they are and have been losing market share for a while.  Let’s look at a couple of Microsoft efforts, first let’s look at Vista.  Vista was supposed to be Microsoft’s answer to Mac’s nice graphical interface, and more intuitive user interface with more powerful media tools.  Instead Vista was a buggy memory hog of an operating system that really required new hardware to work properly, and it just gave the impression of being Window’s XP with a facelift, and a hall monitor for a security system. Needless to say this was not the shiningest release of Microsoft.

Microsoft Zune was another direct answer to Apple (specifically the iPod) as it tried to be hip and cool and do media.  Unfortunately, it just looked like they were copying Apple, and again, they didn’t do it well enough to make the difference and get noticed. Copying your competition’s winning strategy is not a winning strategy.

Another recent Microsoft effort has been to promote it’s search service, even as it tries to buy Yahoo in a high-profile battle involving CEO’s and investors.  How does Microsoft want to convince you to use Live Search?  By paying you when you shop for things through their search engines. Many of us enjoyed the money, and we probably tried Live for a while even, but I’m not switching.

So what does Microsoft do well, and why are they having such a hard time telling their story?  Microsoft does a couple of things very well.  First of all, they work with hardware very well.  They have long established relationships with many, many hardware manufacturers, and this means that you still have better hardware support with Microsoft than with any of the competition.  It also provides a well developed enterprise communication and management infrastructure and stability that often make it the only logical choice for businesses. (I know these statements can be disputed and have been and will be disputed. Nevertheless, judging from a broad view of the industry, and from personal experience I see these as the things that Microsoft excels at.)

Microsoft has, in the past, been very aggressive in protecting its copyrights and patents.  Through this process and due to its market dominance, and hard driving business practice it has gained a reputation for being a bit of a Monopoly-minded corporate giant.  Their efforts to grab market share from competition feed this story, and continue to make Microsoft look like a bad guy.  Through past dominance, existing relationships, price and other means they will retain a large portion of their business, but they are not trending upward, and need to turn the story around.

Google is where most of us start the day, and they realize that.  They do nice things like update their logo to match seasons and holidays, and they throw everyone nice goodies like Gmail, YouTube, Google Checkout, Google Maps, Google Chrome, and dozens of other software packages and services.  Now their stuff doesn’t always work wonderfully out of the box… oh yeah, there is no box, and they don’t make you pay so are you going to complain?  Only if you’re a complainer.  Google was started by innovation and they place the highest priority on staying at the head of the pack in innovation.  Google shows that to the world with new products and product ideas all the time, and they do that by letting the world share in their corporate culture as much as possible through videos of presentations given at Google, stories about tours the Google Campus, and through their participation in the development community.  They are an “Open” company.

Google’s story is not as simple as Mac’s, nor are they lost like Microsoft. Google is almost universal in the search world and yet unlike most monopoly companies they have continued to project an image of being open, generous, and not seeking to further their monopoly.  The story they tell says that everyone benefits from inter-operablity, especially Google, so they just want everything to work as well as possible.  Of course, this story resonates with the millions who daily find Google the willing servant of their every desire when it comes to finding answers. Google has put itself squarely behind “cloud computing” and other trends that put more and more computing online and web based.  The web is Google’s turf, and they recognize the more people use the internet the more advertising dollars they can glean to pay for what is essentially their brain trust.

Google’s participation in the mobile phone market is a very interesting part of Google’s story.  The smart phone community wanted and all but expected Google to join the smart phone game with a handset of their own, instead, Google introduced an operating system for mobile phones called “Android.”  Based on the nearly universal Java language, on a Linux core this Phone OS was released and continues to be promoted to the large community of programmers who are going to do what the web does best and work together to make awesome phone apps.  In other words Google gave us a web oriented open source operating system for mobile phones and put their significant name behind it. Google’s phone system is the antithesis of the iPhone.  Apple controls everything from hardware to software, and achieves incredible quality control through absolute control of an essentially simple system. Google decides not to make hardware, encourages individuals to participate, and gives away as much control as they can, believing that the best way to get good ideas is to allow as many people as possible to participate and contribute. Google stands for innovation, open standards, web based collaborativity, and almost everything that will get us online more.

None of these three companies are going away.  Microsoft is struggling, but early indications seem to show that they are getting back to what they do best with their coming Windows 7 operating system.  Apple will keep plugging along with what they do and can only thank heaven for Microsofts recent stumbles that have greatly increased their market share.  One interesting side of the whole Apple story that probably deserves more attention is their own innovation.  Apple is a company built on innovation, especially when it comes to hardware user interface.  The iPhone is the most recent example of this but we can all look for new ideas from that direction soon as well. Google continues to build Android and their recent announcement of Google Wave promises some very interesting new directions for online communications. Finally, the silent giant in this whole discussion has been the Linux/Open Source community.  The story on Linux is still being written, but with the advent of Android and netbooks I think we are going to begin to see a lot more real live Linux being used by non-computer geeks, and once that happens… the stories of all these companies could change dramatically.

So, there you have my not-so-humble oppinons about Google, Microsoft, and Apple. For what they are worth.  I welcome your comments.

To be continued: