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Technology CompaniesMicrosoft"Hello, I'm a desktop PC. I'm a Mac notebook"

“Hello, I’m a desktop PC. I’m a Mac notebook”

In a recent Newsweek interview, Bill Gates discussed his thoughts on the Apple “I’m a PC. I’m a Mac.” commercials. Personally, I don’t mind most of these commercials. They’re just caricatures of the industry. That’s all. My favorite is the commercial where an IT guy is taping a webcam to PC’s head.

I’m not so keen on all of them, however. The Vista upgrade ad is one example. In the commercial, PC is getting ready for “upgrade surgery” where his video card is to be replaced among other things as he migrates to Vista. The Mac character doesn’t have these kinds of worries, it is implied.

The problem with this commercial is that Apple is mixing its hardware generations.

Most people that buy a Mac today are purchasing notebooks. Not desktops. And, for these people, there’s no thought of upgrading the video either. It’s not a supported option. With notebooks you can upgrade the memory. You can upgrade the hard drive. But generally that’s about it. If a newer generation of software comes out that requires much more horsepower, you’re more than likely going to have to replace the machine.

On the PC side, most of the people that I know who have purchased a PC in the last couple years, have also purchased notebooks. Generally, these people have as many upgrade options as the Mac owners do: memory, the hard drive, and various peripherals. Not many offer video upgrades. Replacing the CPU is beyond most too.

So the “PC” character in the commercial is more than likely supposed to be a generic desktop PC. Not what most people are purchasing today: notebooks.

It’s fair to say that a great Vista experience requires a good graphics system and many older PCs as well as notebooks probably don’t include one. Another valid concern would be with drivers. Will you even be able to find all the Vista drivers you need for your older hardware. I have a handful of perfectly good XP machines than I’m unlikely to upgrade to Vista, not because it’s not possible, but rather because there isn’t a full set of Vista drivers for them, and I don’t know if there ever will be. However, these machines will run Vista. They may not have the slick glass affect. But they will run just fine.

One thing this particular commercial illustrates so well to me is how important it is for Microsoft to communicate how well Vista and notebooks work together. Notebooks are what people are purchasing right now. Maybe not the high end gamers. Maybe not the low-end corporate types. But the rest of us, we are notebook bound.

This changes what it means to upgrade. The importance of available drivers supersedes device upgradability. Unfortunately, the driver issue is a bit of a weak spot right now for older hardware.

However, for new hardware, it’s a different world. And Microsoft should be talking about this first and foremost. Microsoft should be explaining easy it is to take Vista on the go, how natural it is to write on a Tablet-enabled PC, how you take Vista with you rather than going to it, or for powerminded folks how you can give a PC a boost by plugging in a USB drive.

Seems to me the customer questions are: Why might a kid ask for Vista? Because they can take it with them and get to the Net anytime they want to. They can chat with their friends. They can draw faces at each other in Messenger. They can share homework files with new Vista sharing capability. Or they can work on their podcast or blog sitting at the mall. All along they can trust Vista because of its better parental controls and improved security. Why do I want Vista? Because I can take handwritten notes in a meeting. I can use the new Office more effectively, because now things are easier to find. Similarly, why might my parents want Vista? Because they can see hand-drawn images from their grandchildren emailed to them. Or they can take their Vista machine with them as they travel and watch and record shows using Media Center.

(An aside: This focus on “Go with Vista,” points out a little hole in Media Center that I hope is patched soon: The app assumes one location, which isn’t the case with most notebook users or heavy travelers. Instead, you calibrate Media Center to one set of stations. You can’t have multiple locations that you can switch between. It’s unfortunate, because auto-detection of a location would be slick and would be a great feature for today’s mobile user.)

Anyway, this is a long winded way of saying that what it means to “upgrade” has changed and the Mac commercial misses this completely. In this new, notebook-centric world, the reality is that any OS that requires significant hardware changes is going to require a whole new machine for most–or at least excellent backward compatibility if you want to give people the option to upgrade the OS. And as long as people are going to be purchasing new hardware, I’d communicate as strongly as possible the advantages that the new OS enables with this hardware.

Loren Heiny (1961 - 2010) was a software developer and author of several computer language textbooks. He graduated from Arizona State University in computer science. His first love was robotics.

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