Can Microsoft create a reality-distortion field?

Summary:Will Microsoft's new era of "no comment" help usher in a Microsoft Reality-Distortion Field? Is an RDF something Microsoft should desire to emulate in the first place? (My vote: No.) What do you think?

The past couple of weeks of twists and turns along the road to obtaining info about Vista Service Pack 1 has gotten me thinking about RDFs -- reality distortion fields.

Given that RDF may be less familiar to Windows users than Apple ones, here's a quick recap: "Reality distortion field (RDF) is both slang and computer industry jargon. It was coined by Bud Tribble at Apple Computer in 1981 to describe company co-founder Steve Jobs's noted charisma and its effects both on devoted Macintosh users and on others who might otherwise be harder to influence." See also: "Drinking the Kool-Aid."

I started covering Windows in earnest in 1994. I remember the secrecy around Chicago, a k a "Windows 95." Microsoft delivered regular builds to external testers on a weekly -- and sometimes even more frequent -- basis. These testers knew what they could and couldn't say, in terms of their non-disclosure agreements. But they knew it was important to talk both publicly and privately about what was good and what wasn't in the weekly builds in order to help make the product better. And Microsoft knew the same; its Windows brass made themselves available to testers and the press. Customers had a pretty good sense of what was coming and when.

Cut to 2007. The Windows client team (or at least those in charge of it) have decided they are tired of transparency. Look at what happened with Windows Vista. Microsoft aired its dirty laundry, ranging from dropped features, to missed internal milestone dates. And it got hammered for it. So now the team is trying to transition to a new policy: Don't talk about products and plans until they are so completely baked that there is next-to-no chance of them changing. No more fun codenames. No more access to Windows management. Roadmaps -- who needs 'em?

There's another implied promise of secrecy: Mystery creates allure. At least that's the conclusion to which you might come if you're Microsoft studying Apple. All Apple has to do is say: "We've got something new and shiny coming" and users who've never touched a beta version of a Version 1.0 product will camp out overnight to get it. If you can build interest in Windows Seven by holding back information about it, maybe there really would be lines out the door of Best Buy and Circuit City the day it goes on sale….

In order to build Applesque buzz for Windows -- or any of its other products -- Microsoft would need a few things that it currently doesn't have:

  1. A charismatic leader (preferably in a black turtleneck, not a Microsoft-logo'd polo) who is both a showman and a cult leader. If you look at Redmond's executive roster, it's slim pickings on those counts. I guess J Allard would come the closest to a Steve Jobsian stand-in.
  2. Beautifully designed and packaged products (that don't create frustration among its own employees attempting to access the contents of said packaging) that appeal to more than geeks. In the case of software, think cinematic special effects with cool names (more "Time Machine," less "Volume Shadow Copy").
  3. Last but definitely not least -- a vociferous, loyal fan base. (But hopefully not one that is full of folks who believe they are the chosen people.) Yes, there are Microsoft fanboys and girls who go gaga over a Scott Guthrie code-fest. But the average Windows user -- all 800 million of them (according to Microsoft's count) who use Windows on a daily basis -- just are nowhere near as fanatical as the majority of Apple or Linux zealots.

Back to Wikipedia and the definition of RDF:

"RDF is said to distort an audience's sense of proportion or scale. Small advances are applauded as breakthroughs. Interesting developments become turning points, or huge leaps forward. RDF focuses less on outright deception and more on warping the powers of judgment."

Microsoft has shown itself adept at exaggerating the importance of its "breakthroughs." (Windows Vista, case in point.) But it hasn't found the key -- if there is one -- to" warping the powers of judgment" of most of its customer base. I used to think it was because Microsoft was such a dominant No. 1 in the client operating system market and the masses prefer rooting for the underdog. But Google has proven that theory wrong.

Will Microsoft's new era of "no comment" help usher in a Microsoft RDF? Is an RDF something Microsoft should desire to emulate in the first place? (My vote: No.) What do you think?

Topics: Windows, Apple, Microsoft

About

Mary Jo Foley has covered the tech industry for 30 years for a variety of publications, including ZDNet, eWeek and Baseline. She is the author of Microsoft 2.0: How Microsoft plans to stay relevant in the post-Gates era (John Wiley & Sons, 2008). She also is the cohost of the "Windows Weekly" podcast on the TWiT network. Got a tip? Se... Full Bio

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