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What's Wrong With Microsoft's 'Mojave Experiment'?

The conventional wisdom about Microsoft Windows Vista is that it's a mixed bag, and generally inferior to Windows XP. Problems with Vista fall broadly into categories of compatibility, performance and usability:

Compatibility. The company launched Vista before the industry was ready, and during the first six months driver issues were pandemic. This is where the reputation primarily came from. Over time, compatibility has improved.

Performance. Vista is a little slower than XP. This has been verified repeatedly in variety of lab tests.

Usability. Many users -- including Yours Truly -- just don't like Vista. Like many people, I installed it, gave it a fair hearing, then went back to XP. Reasons why people don't like it are well documented all over the Internet.

Microsoft officially responded to all this yesterday. Its response? You're wrong! People really do like Vista!

To prove its point, Microsoft held a series of videotaped focus groups and told attendees -- all non-Vista users -- they would be shown a future version of Windows called "Mojave."

First, they were asked what they thought of Windows Vista, and many comments were negative. A Microsoft representative showed them a variety of specific features of "Mojave," and comments were positive. Then, Microsoft told them "Mojave" was in fact Vista, and some attendees said the Experiment had changed their thinking about Vista.

Microsoft gathered the most favorable comments and placed them on a site called The Mohave Experiment.

Problem solved! Vista's bad reputation has all been a big misunderstanding.

The Mojave Experiment has been compared to MTV's Ashton Kutcher show, "Punk'd," which is a "Candid Camera" show but with celebrities. It's also been compared to the "Pepsi Challenge."

Neither of these correlates well to the Mojave Experiment. The "Punk'd" show is about tricking people, but its aim is humor, and the enjoyment of watching celebrities squirm under stress. The "Pepsi Challenge" is a straightforward taste test comparing one sugary drink to an even more sugary one.

Because the Mojave Experiment was designed to show that people actually like something they thought they didn't like, the perfect analogy is the Folgers Crystals commercials from the early 1980s.

In those commercials, Folgers people went to fancy restaurants and replaced coffee normally served with Folgers Crystals instant coffee. Then a camera crew confronted the diners and asked them how they liked the coffee. Of course, the coffee was delicious, and people were surprised to learn that they were drinking instant decaf. (Watch the commercials here, here and here.)

The Folgers ads proved exactly the same things that the Mohave Experiment proved. They proved that people say nice things to strangers on camera. And they proved that you can make people say they like something if you control the conditions in which they're exposed to it.

Folger's "switch" commercials were apparently effective, because parent company Procter & Gamble made several of them and spent a lot of money running them on TV.

But you know what? Decaf instant coffee is still crap.

Nobody at Microsoft drinks Folgers Crystals instant coffee, for example. Folgers' "Mojave Experiment" didn't work on Microsoft, so why does Microsoft think theirs will work on us?

Since Microsoft cast this marketing push as an "Experiment" -- i.e., science -- I would like to hereby publicly challenge Microsoft to answer the following questions:

• The Mojave Experiment involved 120 people. But the Web site shows 55 people saying nice things about Vista. What did the other 65 people think?

• Most or all Mojave Experiment videos posted to date feature an expert or marketing person showing neato features to someone. If Vista is so great, why didn't you let people touch the computers?

• When people were initially asked their opinion of Vista, was it clear yet that Microsoft was doing the focus groups? How about when asked the second time? (I've personally developed and conducted many focus groups, and once you tell who is sponsoring it, everybody gets very complimentary about that company's products.)

• Did the Mac, Linux, Windows XP and Windows 2000 users run out and buy Vista? If so, what do they think now? How about some follow-up?

• Will you make all video footage available (not just the favorable bits), at least to the press? How about just me?

• How is getting people to respond to controlled demos superior to surveys of people who actually use Vista?

The problem with Vista is not that it doesn't demo well. Vista looks great when an expert cherry picks features for you and shows them to you with a Microsoft-configured and optimized machine. The problem with Vista is the experience of using it every day in the real world with real third-party hardware and software.

Also: The problem with Vista isn't that its good qualities aren't good; it's just that its bad qualities are bad and, more important, overall it's not as usable as XP. Cherry-picking a tiny number of Vista's best features and showing them to people doesn't have anything at all to do with the bad features people struggle with.

Microsoft, here's my advice to you: Stop trying to convince us that we like something we don't like. Instead, just be glad millions of people do like one of your operating systems. Bring back XP, and sell it openly as an alternative to Vista. Meanwhile, make Windows 7 better than either Vista or XP.

If you can't create an appealing operating system, don't think you can fix that with tricky marketing. It's insulting. It's discouraging. And it erodes trust in Microsoft.

In addition to writing for Datamation, where this column first appeared, Mike Elgan is a technology writer and former editor of Windows magazine. He can be reached at mike.elgan+datamation@gmail.com or his blog: http://therawfeed.com.