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The truth will make you strong – like a giant

“Houston – do we have a problem?”

“Yes, Microsoft, we have.”

In fact, attending Microsoft’s Worldwide Partner Conference in Houston, Texas, this month, it became evident that the company has many problems.

It has a problem with the wild popularity of Google’s online consumer applications such as Google Maps, Documents, and of course Gmail. Its web-based software-plus-service (read software-as-a-service) strategy aims to quell the encroachment of such applications into the enterprise.

It has a problem with Apple’s iPhone, RIM’s Blackberry, (the scorn I earned from several Microsoft staff for taking one to the event was both humorous and a little scary!) and any other device that does not run Windows Mobile 6.

It has a problem with VMware’s dominance of the visualisation market and is determined to get into this game with HyperV included in Windows Server 2008.

However, there is nothing unusual or surprising about these issues – by CEO Steve Ballmer’s own admission at the conference, Microsoft is competitive – it loves to compete and thrives on it.

After all, the need to compete and to be the best at what they do is a natural and essential feature of all successful companies and individuals.

But, an hour into the conference, attendees could be forgiven for thinking that the single biggest issue Microsoft faces today is the bad rap Windows Vista is getting out in the real world.

The company devoted a prime keynote slot on the opening day of the conference to spell out how it plans to “bust a few myths” around the operating system.

Presented by corporate vice-president of Windows product marketing Brad Brooks, the session started off on a cheesy note – to connect with his audience of an estimated 12,000 souls, Brooks played the child card.

He related how the evening before he was on the phone to his five-year-old daughter and told her he was due to talk to a very important audience the next day, but was not happy with his speech.

Her advice: “Don’t worry, Papa, because you know the truth and the truth makes you strong.”

Brooks went on to pepper his speech with a number of defiant and overtly defensive statements about spreading “the truth” about Vista and how it was time for Microsoft and its partners to make their “collective voices” heard.

He singled out Apple as “a highly vocal minority” that is fuelling a conversation in the market that is “just plain wrong”.

“We know the story is very different to what our competitors would like our customers to think. Today we’re drawing a line… We have to get back on our front foot – and make sure nobody crosses [that line],” he said.

Brooks announced the launch of a major campaign, backed by a war chest estimated to be worth US$700 million, through which Microsoft plans to “get the facts” about Vista out to end-users.

And it is then that Brooks delivered a real pearler: “You think the sleeping giant is still sleeping? Well, we’ve woken up!”

This was an unfortunate choice of words for a company that has landed in hot water before for its dominance in the market.

Besides, such a defensive stance is unlikely to rattle the likes of Apple and may even frighten away some potential Vista converts.

I do not believe this is the message partners wanted to hear. While many told me they approve of Microsoft taking up the cause for Vista, they feel the focus should be on the benefits it offers.

Microsoft missed an opportunity to invoke real excitement about the opportunities Vista presents to partners.

Instead it was saying: “We know early issues with Vista hurt you – we’re sorry, but we’ve fixed it now. And we’re not going to let those bad people say bad things about our products anymore.”

What Brooks’ daughter could also have told him is that in bedtime stories, the sleeping giant is hardly ever portrayed as the hero.