Is it time for Microsoft to 'retire' its tarnished brands?

What do Internet Explorer, Hotmail, and Zune have in common? They're all intensely disliked by the elite tech press. So maybe they need to just disappear.
Written by Ed Bott, Senior Contributing Editor

In the latest monthly statistics reported by Net Market Share, Microsoft’s Internet Explorer has around 54% of overall browser usage on PCs and Macs.

That number has held steady for several months now and is up significantly from IE’s low point of just under 52%, recorded in December 2011.

If you prefer to get your metrics from StatCounter, IE is locked in a virtual dead heat with Google Chrome for the top spot among World Wide Web visitors. The two browser families each account for between 32% and 33% of web visits from desktop operating systems.

The point is, Internet Explorer is popular and widely used. And yet, among Silicon Valley elites, it might as well be invisible. Google Chrome, with its six-week update cycles and unabashed geekiness, is the default browser of web developers, the tech press, and hipsters in general.

IE is a tarnished brand, considered old, slow, and tragically uncool. It’s the browser everyone loves to hate. It doesn’t matter that Internet Explorer 9 is a modern browser, with excellent performance and a level of security that is arguably higher than its rivals. No one in Silicon Valley would even think of running IE. It's literally a non-starter.

IE is not the only brand that was born in Redmond and now suffers from negative public perception.

There’s also Hotmail, the original free webmail service, which celebrates its 16th birthday this week. Microsoft bought the service back in 1997, when it was just over a year old. Today, hundreds of millions of people use Hotmail every month. But having Hotmail.com as part of your primary email address suggests to the world—at least that part of the world that is bordered by San Francisco on the north and San Jose on the south—that you spend your days feeding pigeons in the park and screaming at little kids to get off your lawn.

And then there’s Zune, which has never recovered from its doomed launch—in brown, no less—against the iPod juggernaut. The Zune devices were quietly discontinued last year, but the Zune music and video service lives on. Try to tell someone that you prefer the Zune music service to iTunes and they’ll look at you as if you’re preaching the gospel of Scientology. Don’t even try.

All three products have common factors.

They were good ideas. They stumbled. And although they have recovered, the target market has never forgotten the stumble. Indeed, it has defined the product in terms of its bumbling, stumbling, darkest moments.

So, in the minds of the tech elite, Internet Explorer is defined by the hapless IE6. Hotmail is stuck in the spam-ridden mess of a decade ago. And Zune never got out of the gate.

How do you overcome those negative perceptions? Maybe you can’t.

So the Zune service is about to go away for good, to be replaced by Xbox Music and Video. That’s smart. Despite a minor glitch or two (including the billion-dollar Red Ring of Death debacle), the Xbox brand is solid gold.

Hotmail doesn’t have a ready replacement like that at hand. So rumor has it that Microsoft has a new mail brand in the works, code-named Newmail. That won’t be the final name, of course, but replacing the tarnished Hotmail label with a shiny new brand and a slick new Metro style client is a good way to put the Hotmail clunker in the rearview mirror.

And then there’s Internet Explorer. The IE brand name can’t just be tossed away. Even if you take StatCounter’s pessimistic numbers as gospel, that means a half-billion people use IE regularly. You’d be insane to try to rebrand a product with that much market share.

So what Microsoft has done with IE 9 and is continuing with IE 10 in Windows 8 is to remove the branding completely. In both the Metro and desktop versions, there are no visible signs that a web page is being rendered by Internet Explorer. The idea, I suspect, is to make web browsing as generic a function as possible, to demote the role of the browser from branded program to system service.

In Windows 8, IE 10 lacks any trace of branding. It is chromeless—an ironic description given its chief rival.

The Metro design style has been criticized for its lack of branding and for its tendency to make all apps look alike. But what if that’s a feature and not a bug? Maybe the future will be defined by basic services that do their job without cluttering the environment with menus or logos. And, not coincidentally, without creating an opportunity to hate.

It’s hard to develop a loathing for something that isn’t there. Maybe, after years of building complex branded software, Microsoft has finally learned that lesson.

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