Can one company be everything to all people? Such a positioning defies logic - and laws of marketing gravity - but that's exactly what Microsoft is attempting.
At a big PR-orchestrated do in Mumbai, the company announced its 'new and improved' MSN Search. Is it? Not as far as I can tell.
But the main point is why would a young person want to type the long and cumbersome http://search.msn.co.in/ when a simple http://www.google.com/ does the trick?
Why Google rocks
Google entered the search engine game late but it quickly became a favourite because it offered something different. It was a "pure" search engine whereas others like yahoo were portals. And it got the job done faster and better (more, relevant results).
The other thing going in Google's favour is its brand name. It's got a strong and loyal user base because it not only claims to 'think different', it actually IS different. Visibly so!
Its coolness is reflected in little touches like its 'google artworks' which change from day to day on the site. And in its radical definition of what 'new and improved' means. 10 or 20% better is not good enough for google. When it really takes on the market - like it did with Gmail - it alters the rules of the game.
The tech savvy bit was to offer a better user experience with a HUGELY attractive carrot - 1 GB storage space. That made the effort of switching ids worthwhile.
But there was marketing savvy too. The fact that only Gmail users could invite others to open an account made the service cool and exclusive - and was also a factor in making the decision to shift one's loyalty.
It's this combination of superior offering/ technology + inherent coolness that makes Google, in my opinion, quite unbeatable.
Can Microsoft rule everything?
Practically every email provider upgraded its storage space post GMail . In the long run EVERYONE benefitted from the Google email launch.
So the trouble with MSN Search is, no one believes that Microsoft can actually come up with a product better than Google.
What we do know is that Microsoft is Master of the Art of Me Too. It jumps onto a new idea or territory created by someone else. And then, by sheer muscle and money power, succeeds in overwhelming the original innovator.
Microsoft reduced Apple to a tiny shadow of its original potential, by incorporating Apple's Graphical User Interface (GUI) in Windows.
Then, it ousted Netscape from the browser space with IE Explorer. Here, the master stroke was bundling it into the Windows OS.
Next, it got into the email game by buying out Hotmail. Big deal (pun intended).
Now (along with yahoo) it dominates the instant messenger space (originally created by the all-but-forgotten ICQ).
But I don't think the'Me Too' strategy will work anymore - not with Google. The company is really smart, really quick - and has enough cash, thanks to its IPO - to take on the challenge.
Why 'good' isn't good enough
What Microsoft needs to do in response is something it hasn't attempted for a long time. Produce a new and revolutionary product.
There's a lesson in this for every youth marketer, but especially so for companies in the 'non physical' (internet, media) space.
The consumer is a lot more discerning today and large corporations better realise that 'marketing' will fall flat unless you have a product that not only matches consumer expectations but exceeds them.
That's why TOI's Zoom TV has been rejected by the youth audience (it may claim anything, in the articles plugged into its own newspaper but that is the truth) while Star One is steadily gaining popularity.
Both channels advertised heavily - and projected a cool, youthful image. But only Star One's programming matched up. It took the risk of launching a range of new, different shows - such as the boarding school soap opera Remix, which has attracted a decent fan following. As have comedies like Instant Khichdi, Sarabhai vs Sarabhai and the Great Indian Comedy Show.
Charity begins at home...
So does a reality check. The sad fact is even TOI employees themselves do not watch Zoom - in fact, many shudder at the mention of the channel. When your product has no respect in house, can you expect to convince the world outside how good it is?
Microsoft's entry into the digital music market, similarly, looks destined to fail. It is estimated that Apple's iPod commands 65 % of the portable player market, and its iTunes Music Store 70 % of online music sales. Microsoft is trying hard to compete in this market with its Windows Media Audio (WMA) format which is supported by several online music stores (Napster, MusicMatch, Wal-Mart) and hardware (Creative etc)
But, as a recent Wired news report noted: Apple IPods are 'wildly popular' on Microsoft campuses (to the growing frustration and annoyance of the management).
"About 80 percent of Microsoft employees who have a portable music player have an iPod," said one source, a high-level manager who asked to remain anonymous. "It's pretty staggering."
So popular is the iPod, executives are increasingly sending out memos frowning on its use.
"These guys are really quite scared...It shows how their backs are against the wall.... Even though it's Microsoft, no one is interested in what we have to offer, even our own employees."
Apparently, several executives who dutifully bought Microsoft-powered players, tried them, failed to get them working, and returned them in favor of an iPod.
Now one can get paranoid about this - or accept this as feedback from the market - and act accordingly to make something even better than IPod (Don't tell me it's NOT possible. Just saying that should be challenge enough for the geeks at Redmond).
Maybe there's someone at Google already thinking about it :) In the interest of the consumer... I sure hope so.